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As the wheel turns full circle, age-old questions remain

Opinion

Not being able to embrace some of our loved ones is difficult but it’s important to keep communicating and asking the big – and small – questions, writes Rebecca Levingston

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This year my grandfather turned 95. This week my sons will turn nine and five. My boys are both getting birthday bikes. Don’t tell them!

Last week I sat in the carpark of my grandad’s aged care home, called him on the phone and asked him if he could remember the first bike he ever got. He has a magnificent memory and he told me about a white Malvern Star that had a special place in his now faltering heart.

I was talking to Grandad in the carpark because his home was in lockdown. No visitors. No hugs. No cups of tea in his rooster mug. Aged care homes are rightly cautious about coronavirus. It’s heartbreakingly necessary. Still, it hurts not to sit with the ones you love. At least we can talk.

Usually when I call Grandad and ask how he is, he answers, “Going along quietly”.

That’s a bit of a lie because he loves to talk. Not loudly, but he does love a chat. Sometimes Grandma shushes him, especially if the conversation heads into political territory.

Grandad often tells me that he listens to me on the radio and talks back to me. Sometimes he thinks I should get into certain politicians and sometimes he thinks I should pull back – like many of my listeners I suspect. I just hope he keeps listening because he gave me the genes to talk.

At Grandad’s birthday party this year, we played his favourite Slim Dusty songs. I made chocolate cupcakes and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’. After the “hip hip hooray”, my sons spontaneously started to clap and count up to 95. Why not, we do it at kids parties?

Dolly Parton sang about those numbers too. “Working nine to five, what a way to make a living.” The people who work in aged care don’t work nine to five. Will this pandemic give them the recognition they deserve?

The average rate of an aged care worker starts at about $23 per hour.

Aged care industry profits are in the billions – $1.7 billion according to the Greens who argue care should be a not-for-profit industry.

Everald Compton, who was a founding director at National Seniors Australia agrees.

The Morrison Government established the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2018. It’s still running. As of July 31 this year, 9301 public submissions had been received. The most common concerns were staffing issues, isolation and unmet needs. The final report is due by 26th February 2021.

Speaking to an aged care worker recently, I got a sense of the immense pressure she and her colleagues are under. Worried family members were calling to check that showers were regular and coronavirus protocols were being met on increasingly tight rosters. It’s bloody hard work. There’s not a lot of glamour in one of the most important jobs in society. Isn’t it strange what we revere and remunerate?

This week I also spoke to a family wracked with guilt for putting their beloved sister-in-law into care in the midst of this pandemic. They feared loneliness and the lack of loving touch might be as harmful as this dreaded virus. When Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young lifted the aged care lockdown restrictions, tears flowed and hope returned for precious time together again.

Another friend nursed his mother at home in her final days and that meant she could be surrounded by her grandchildren. They held her hands and played her favourite music. One day she even requested a glass of champagne – a toast at the gentlest farewell.

I hope that my boys can see their great-grandad again soon. I hope they can ask him if they can have a jelly jube out of the lolly bowl. I hope that he can ask them about their birthday bikes.

We stop asking the questions we put to small children when we become older, but perhaps they’re just as relevant when we’re thinking about how to give people of all ages the very best care.

What’s your favourite food? What do you want to play today? Where do you want to be when you grow up?

Good questions to ask whether you’re 9 or 5 – or 95.

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