A different kind of caring
The timing could not have been worse. In June, in the midst of isolation during a terrifying pandemic, Helen Courtney had a fall and broke her arm.
And one of the first things the 82-year-old thought was “it’s my left arm, and I’m left-handed. How can I possibly look after myself as well as my husband now?”
Helen cares for her 88-year-old husband, John (Patrick), who suffered a severe stroke a year ago.
They live in an apartment at Manningtree Hawthorn – an Independent Retirement Living complex which abuts the Hawthorn Community aged care residence, both of which opened this year and are owned and operated by Uniting AgeWell.
The couple are each on a home care package through Uniting AgeWell. Helen gets a bit of help with the housework, while John has some personal care.
However, Helen is his full-time carer. She does the shopping, cooking and helps John with day to day things that his limited mobility, caused by paralysis to his left side, does not allow.
“My days are full,” she explains. “I get up at 6.30am, an hour before he wakes up, so I have some time exclusively to myself. I mostly go for a walk.”
So, when Helen was told by the doctors, in no uncertain terms, that she would need to rest in order to heal her arm, the couple had to come up with a plan. Fast.
They decided that John would go to Hawthorn Community for three weeks respite care, so Helen could concentrate on getting better, much to the relief of their five very concerned children – one who lives in Victoria, one in Canada and three in New South Wales.
“It was a very worrying time for them,” Helen explains. “They couldn’t see us, I was injured and we were in the middle of a pandemic!”
Respite care proved to be the tonic that was needed. There’s a gate between Manningtree and the community, so visiting John was simple, and Helen could rest up at home as much as she wanted.
And retired accountant John, who is an avid reader, says he enjoyed his stay there and found the meals were very good. “I enjoyed the companionship too, the staff are caring and very friendly.”
Now that isolation has lifted and Helen’s arm is much better, she’s looking forward to getting back to playing tennis and bridge with other Manningtree residents. And because they know the respite care works so well, they’ll use it again if necessary.
Respite care was also a lifeline for another family during COVID-19 – so much so they turned a short-term stay into a forever one.
And Jane loves spending quality time with her beloved mum Joan and hearing all her stories about the arts and crafts activities she’s been doing at Uniting AgeWell’s Hawthorn Community.
They’ve come a long way since the devastating day in the midst of a pandemic in an icy Melbourne winter that left the close-knit family reeling when doctors told them the 94-year-old could be discharged from hospital but would not be able to live on her own at home anymore.
And Jane and her brother have gone from being very worried to enjoying peace of mind knowing their Mum is happy, busy and well cared for.
So how did it all unfold?
Jane and her brother are both retired and shared caring for Joan, who lived alone in her home in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
They visited daily and helped out with shopping, cooking, cleaning and gardening, as well as providing companionship and supporting connections with friends and family.
Jane, 61, lives in the eastern suburbs, and found the drive in heavy traffic to and from her Mum’s house not only stressful but exhausting.
“It was perilous. The trucks were relentless, no matter what the time of day. And the time it took to get to Mum was unpredictable,” she says.
Jane has a huge heart and also supports an elderly friend, and although juggling commitments and heavy traffic was taking its toll, she never even once considered easing up.
Things came to a head mid-winter, when Joan suffered an infection and delirium and was urgently admitted to hospital. She was subsequently diagnosed with dementia, and doctors made it clear she would not be able to return to her home.
“I had always wanted Mum to be able to continue living in her own home and to one day die peacefully in her sleep in her own bed,” Jane explains. “That’s what all three of us hoped would happen, but life doesn’t always work out the way that we want.”
The family opted for a few weeks respite care at Hawthorn Community, which is ten minutes down the road from where Jane lives.
They decided to “test the waters” with a view to it becoming permanent if her mum was happy there. And also to see whether the care met Jane’s scrupulous standards.
It was ‘yes’ on both counts. Joan loves the activities, the companionship, the care and the meals - and says “everyone is lovely”. And the care has surpassed Jane’s expectations.
“I cannot speak highly enough of the staff,” Jane says. “They genuinely care, they are kind and always respectful and attentive. Their communication is wonderful. We can talk about the big and little things. It’s also been important to be able to talk through all the medical and care issues.”
And although Jane says it was “a joy and a privilege” to be able to care for her Mum, there is a great feeling of relief and a peace of mind in knowing that Joan is enjoying such excellent care.
“I sleep well now, I no longer worry that something has happened to Mum while she is alone at home,” Jane says. “And I can spend more quality and relaxed time with Mum. It’s caring in a different form.”
And Jane can have more time for herself – something that she and other exhausted carers need for their emotional and physical wellbeing.
“At the moment I’m not sure what it will be,” Jane says. “Maybe I will take up a new hobby. I can do these things now, in the sure knowledge that Mum is happy and in the best place possible.”
Uniting AgeWell’s Admissions Manager Sharon D’ Rozario says carer stress is real, growing and can change the relationship between family members, not always in a positive way.
“Sometimes quality time can be replaced by practical carer duties,” Sharon says. “Carers can quickly become exhausted and the older person may even feel a sense of guilt or fret ‘do they want to be here, or do they feel they have to be here?”
Sharon says COVID-19 has also left many carers exhausted. “The pandemic, the restrictions and iso dragged on and on.
“Now Christmas is coming, and with restrictions lifting, we can finally take a break and perhaps go on holiday. And many families want to get away. Respite care gives them an opportunity to do this, with the peace of mind that their loved one is being cared for in a safe place.”
“There’s no doubt respite care can make a positive difference,” she says.
Uniting AgeWell is offering a special respite stay package until 31 January to help carers during this difficult year – stay three weeks and pay for just two. Respite stays are available at Uniting AgeWell residences across Melbourne, Geelong and Bendigo, and in Rosetta in southern Tasmania. They offer 24 hour specialist clinical and dementia care, as well as a vibrant lifestyle program within a welcoming community.