Monday, 3 February 2014

will you still feed me?

My Aunty Joan is my living hero.  Now, almost 97 she has finally come to the place of knowing she can't live on her own anymore.  She is almost blind.  She's had a couple of falls, no serious damage, but enough to show it's not safe to be alone. The little timber cottage in Gatton has been closed up and Joan waited in the local hospital for the next step. That step was something she could not handle herself so her daughters, son and their spouses had to organise a residential home for her. It took a while, but finally she is installed in a lovely unit of a large bedroom/sitting room and a large bathroom, all kitted out with movement sensors and emergency buttons.  There is a dining room and a TV room, and a swimming pool.

"Will you swim?"  I asked.

Joan was never a highly sociable person. As a child she disliked helping with her mother's fund raising bridge parties when she wanted to crawl into a corner to read a book.  Through her teens she studied nursing and as a young woman she faced hard work in several areas.  Later she nursed her husband through heart disease and during his last days Joan slept on the floor by his hospital bed, just to be there for him.  She was 85 when he died.  So then she lived alone for almost 12 years, eventually adjusting to the busy social whirl of meals on wheels deliveries, a fortnightly home help cleaner, visits from a nurse/social worker and an occasional shopping trip on the bus for the elderly. She told me she loved the mango tree that filled the backyard. It was her retreat. When life got too much she'd go out there to feed her face and calm down.

I was interested to hear about social life in the new 'home'.  She is pleased to be one of only three at her table in the dining room. One of the other ladies is very  quiet, and that suits Joan. The other one chatters non-stop and Joan says she just has to accept she will be asked if she takes sugar in her tea over and over again throughout each meal.

95th Birthday cake
She said, "I thought I'd be nice to this poor woman so when she said there was a good film on the television I went with her to watch it. Of course I couldn't see anything as we sat at the back of the room, and I couldn't hear it but she seemed to be enjoying herself and I just tried to stay awake and think about other things. Then the next day I said to her, 'That was an interesting film we saw yesterday'.  And do you know, she didn't have a clue to what I was talking about.  She said, 'What film, I didn't see a film, I went to bed early'.  So that was a waste of time." This was presented in the tone of dry humour that is my Aunty Joan. The humour that wraps around ordinary things and makes them amusing from her point of view. 

I choose to phone her rather than visit because visits are physically exhausting for her.  Joan has children who visit her regularly and I have phone calls - and she phones me as often as I phone her.  That is very special.  She told me once that she has the names of her children and grand-children written in a notebook by the phone so she can remember who everyone is and who to ask about.  And one day I realised my end of the family is on the list too as she asks after my sister and brother and then our children in order, during conversations.  I'm delighted to be 'on the list'.  My daughter she calls 'your girl' and my granddaughter is 'the little one', as she knows them the best from the family gatherings for her 90th and 95th birthday celebrations.  "And I'm not having another one for 5 years", she said each time.  

It was wonderful that for the 90th birthday her cousin Ian came up to Brisbane, from Sydney, for the event. Their mothers were sisters and though Ian was a bit younger he spent a lot of time with Joan and my mother. Now he is no longer available for parties or anything else leaving Joan as the surviving member of that generation, in our family.

But, Joan was not born as an old lady.  She was a vibrant young woman who did well at school and wanted to continue studying. Her exotic looks were not appreciated by her blond haired, blue eyed mother so Joan grew up thinking she was not attractive and would have to fend for herself.  Careers for women were limited to nursing or teaching and Joan followed her mother and aunts into nursing.  The war came and she was patching up Aussies wounded in the mountain jungles of New Guinea. One wounded soldier staggered down the Kokoda track and into her life.

My uncle talked of their meeting at their 50th Wedding Anniversay celebration.  "Joan was an Army nurse. After being wounded on the Kokoda trail I was delivered to her at a Military hospital in Sydney in Dec 1942. Joan was an energetic business-like officer with two pips on her shoulders and me a lowly corporal with two stripes on my sleeve. I was a little the worse for wear but was slowly brought back to working order with her help. Then Joan was sent off to the war in New Guinea and I went to work in Sydney for a firm of wool brokers."

His elbow had been shot away so doctors gave him the choice of having the arm permanently set straight or bent.  He chose bent so he could ride a horse and shoot a rifle. As he had studied wool classing before he joined the army Don went back to that city job, but the 'bush' was always in his heart. When Joan returned from the war they were married and Don worked as a station manager, just west of Charleville and a year or so later moved to Murweh.

Joan told me, "Don finally won the soldiers ballot for free land. Mogera was 80,000 acres of rough country inhabited by dingoes.  We chose a paddock near a dry dam and pitched a big army tent for a bedroom. Don built an iron shed for a kitchen and a bough shed to 'live in'! Our fourth child was born at Mogera 1952."

The iron shed was too hot so cooking was on an open fire outside and the baby was hung in a sling from the tent post, to protect him from snakes. The children played in the dust under the gaze of wild dingoes - starving in the drought and on the lookout for easy prey.  They had no water, no fences and no grass. Don pushed down Mulga scrub for the sheep to eat and guarded them on horseback. Then the wool boom burst and the price went down overnight. Don had a fall from the horse and a long stay in hospital.

Eventually a house was built, the station sold and another bought closer to town. At least the children could attend school but the school burnt down and Joan had to teach them at home after all. And, as Don described it, this venture turned out to be a non-profit business. Life was a battle with heat, drought, snakes in the wood pile, distance from family, from friends, even from the post office. Visitors were few. Sheep had to be cared for, fed, sheared, drenched, sometimes killed and eaten. Dogs and horses had to be trained, fed and cared for. Shearers were accommodated and fed, cows herded and milked, fruit cakes baked, dingoes and wild pigs hunted, kangaroos discouraged, snakes killed, beggars and thieves chased from the door, children educated, clothes made, books read by lantern light, clothing washed by hand, wood chopped, fires put out, fire breaks burned, neighbours helped, illnesses treated, wounds bandaged, vehicles repaired and each day started it all over again.

Finally a generator added evenings to their day, better vehicles brought the town closer and telephones connected the family. The outback station was sold and a smaller produce farm, a few hours from Brisbane, became home. Four children turned into two nurses, an engineer and business woman, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.   

The house near Charleville - Joan's sister Margaret (my mother) visiting.

Of course Aunty Joan is not the only person to live a life of struggle and difficulty and she told me that herself when she talked about the desperate situation of other families during the depression. She has memories of going in the car with her father to deliver food parcels, until the family business closed and they could no longer afford to help others as they were also eating wild caught rabbits and home grown potatoes. The family lost their home and when her parent's marriage broke up Joan was sent to live with her mother's sister - not a big disaster for Joan as her cousin Claire was her best friend. Little sister Peg stayed with Mother while Father moved in with his former secretary. The loss of her father that way hurt Joan deeply, a hurt that is still there today, though it lives in the shadow of losing her oldest daughter to cancer, the same year that Don died. 

Joan once said to me - "We each have our own life and how we live it depends on the bits we inherit from parents."

And so I asked about her new home.
"It's all very nice," she said. "In fact it's luxury but I suppose I'll get used to it."  lol  "I'm not sure about the pool though."
'What do you do during the day?
"I read, I've got a nice chair here and there is a library. In the afternoon someone brings me a cup of tea, it's all very nice. I have lots of little sleeps. I can go to the TV room if I want, but I'm not interested in television now."
"Do you need anything? A fruit cake or a packet of biscuits?"
"I have some biscuits in the room but I can't eat them because I'm always full."
"Maybe I'll bring you a little bottle of coke when I come."
"He he, yes, that would be nice. But I have to be careful because I only have rotten teeth left."
"How's the food?"
"Oh, it's ..... it's alright. There's plenty of it."
Hmmmm - change in tone. She won't explain unless I insist.
"What is wrong with the food?"
" Well... it's not what I'm used to."
"You were used to meals-on-wheels."
"And this is different?"
"It's .... the way they ... present it."
"It's frozen."
"Apparently, this is what all the big hospitals do."
"And the meals-on-wheels were cooked fresh each day."
"Yes......  it was like I used to cook myself."
"Some frozen food is okay."
"Some is."
"Even meals-on-wheels is going to frozen dinners in some places."
"That's a shame."
"So you're eating airplane food."
She laughed. "They do whatever they do to heat it and it tastes okay. Rice is a bit .......... well ... let's say I've had enough chicken and rice to last me."

I am so sorry. So sorry that we can't give our darling oldies fresh food, sorry that our infirm get microwave dinners served in cardboard trays, with instant mashed potato and dried out beef. So sorry that your reward for a life of caring for others is that we can't afford to feed you properly. Forget about the wounded soldiers, the dust and dingoes, the barefooted children and snakes in the woodpile - forget about the sacrifice, the pioneer spirit, the building of family, here - have a frozen dinner.  

Caring for our elders should be part of family life. Children who don't see their grandparents regularly, if not daily, are missing an important part of their development and they lose track of where they are in history.

In traditional societies people look forward to living out their last years surrounded by their children and aging friends. Ancient Chinese society was held together by the belief in family. The greatest virtue being devotion to one’s parents.  They still respect the declining abilities of the aged to tend gardens, care for babies, assist in the education of children - allowing the young adults to work. Value is given to craft work, sharing skills, knowledge and understanding of life and passing on the family stories.  In sedentary farming societies around the world, the elderly are fed and cared for and live in the same hut or one near their adult children.

With nomadic people the elderly can become a burden and occasionally tribes were forced to abandon their aged and infirm. There is even a word for it.  Senilicide. It loosely means doing away with the olds.  When there is enough food to go around, everyone gets a share, even those who are not productive. During times of famine not feeding the elderly often saved the young.  When desperate, the Inuit left their old folk outside to die of exposure or starve to death, considering it to be assisted suicide. It was often a mutual decision.

Today's elderly live away from their children. After they do the expected retirement road trip they're supposed to quietly disappear into assisted living villages or nursing homes - if they can afford it, or a council flat, out of sight, until required for weddings and funerals. They feed themselves, they feed cats and lap dogs and sometimes go without.

We are all part of the aging population. Grannies struggling to keep up with technology give the smart young things the impression that old people have no place in the modern world. These old people are eating food, breathing air, using up valuable natural resources and clogging the medical system - becoming a burden. Some hospitals have a policy of treating young people first, some doctors prescribe drugs with little attention given to good health for the elderly, it's easier and cheaper. A version of senilicide has been practiced in hospitals and nursing homes for centuries - withhold food and they fade away. 

Often they don't really mind - being very old is not fun. But what is old? It's getting younger every year. Applying for a job is difficult at 55 and TV ads tell us we should be buying funeral insurance in our 40s. The Protestant work ethic of measuring a person's value by their ability to work - has led to our youth centred culture in which we idolise individualism and independence. In 2004, France had to pass decree requiring citizens keep in touch with their geriatric parents after a heat wave killed 15,000 people - most of them elderly and many bodies were not found for weeks because of neglect by their families. Also, France had the highest number of pensioner suicides in Europe.

So what are we going to do? Maybe these huge modern houses with parent retreats, teenager's living area and home theatres should also include granny flats, for us - but that depends on our children becoming millionaires. The question of where we'll end up when we can no longer manage independently is a big one.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, 
when I'm sixty/eighty four?


  1. Good read. Thanks. Jo B

  2. Great the blog is back. Great topic. Ann

    1. Sometimes I get too busy - so many pages in my head and not on the blog.

  3. I loved reading your blog Janine. You made me feel like I was there and definitely raised some issues at the end. Thank you for sharing - Murralyn

  4. I enjoy writing it and thanks for reading.


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