Making the most of life

Brenda Rowley intends spending the last few months of her life being as happy and as comfortable as possible.

And the 78-year-old reckons being served delicious meals, playing scrabble and reading, making new friends, and having all her needs taken care of including 24-hour medical care and expert pain control in the comfort of her spacious room at Uniting AgeWell Hawthorn Community is as good as it’s going to get.

The retired accounts manager has terminal cancer, and is unable to carry on living alone in her Hawthorn flat. She’s had surgery and chemotherapy, stints at the Mercy Hospital and the Peter Mac Centre, and now she’s ready for the rest and relaxation that palliative care affords.

“I don’t look at what I can’t do, but what I can,” Brenda explains. “And I have every intention of enjoying the time I have left.”

Brenda is single, has no children and is an only child whose parents have long passed away. And with negative birth rates in so many countries across the world as many couples choose not to have children, or only to have one child, Brenda has no doubt an increasing number of people will find themselves in a similar situation one day.

“The world is changing,” Brenda says. “And the way we decide how best to live out our last stage will need to change to reflect this.”

Brenda is hugely pragmatic about her situation. “I can’t stay at home on my own anymore, I don’t want to be in hospital and I don’t have family. And it’s not fair on friends to take care of me, they’re busy and have their own lives to lead.

“So, in mid-December I decided to come in for a bit of respite care here at Hawthorn Community and see what it was like. And I really enjoyed it! The staff are caring and I’m very well looked after.”

Now Brenda has decided to move in permanently and choose Uniting AgeWell to become her extended family to look after her. “It’s my new home, and it’s absolutely the right place for me to be,” she says.

Brenda sees the move as just another new venture in what has been a full and busy life, including some serious globe-trotting. She spent a year touring North and South America, Canada, Europe, Russia and the UK and has done a number of trips to Canada since then. She’s worked in accounts in a number of firms in both Melbourne and Tasmania.

Over the years Brenda has found great joy in bush walking, cooking and reading – but she’s always up for a new adventure. In her 70’s, she decided to go back to class and complete Years 11 and 12. It took her four years, and she loved the challenge. “Some of my friends thought I was nuts going back to school after 50 years out of the classroom, but I was determined to do it.”

Brenda believes in practising kindness. She has always looked out for others, and even rescued a feral kitten from a community garden near her flat which became her treasured companion for 16 years.

Now she’s glad to be helping those in a similar position by sharing her story. “I’ve led a happy life and I’m okay with talking about dying,” Brenda says simply. “In fact, I’m finding that facing the inevitable sharpens my focus. And I’ll be pleased if my story can continue long after I’m gone to show others that there are options available to them.”

Thank you, Brenda. You have a big heart.

There are multiple and varied reasons for coming in for respite care says Hawthorn Community Admissions Coordinator Sue McCarthy. And she says many, like Brenda and Dinah, opt to make the move permanent.

Dinah came in for respite care over Christmas and loved it so much she’s now moved in permanently. “Dinah says she’s being looked after for the first time in her adult life,” Sue says “and she’s delighted to be spending her time and energy on enjoying herself and having fun.”

It’s not just residents but their families who benefit from respite care.

Uniting AgeWell’s Admissions Manager Sharon D’ Rozario says there is a huge need for respite care with COVID-19 leaving many older people and carers exhausted.

Sharon says carer stress is real and can change the relationship between family members, not always in a positive way. “Sometimes quality time can be replaced by practical carer duties. Carers can quickly become exhausted and the older person may worry about this too. There’s no doubt respite care can make a positive difference.”

Sue echoes this. She says a family recently opted for respite care when it became too difficult to cope with a loved one with dementia who had taken to wandering outside the family home and getting lost.

“The family was at breaking point,” Sue says. “At least now they can get some rest knowing that she is safe and being cared for.”

Uniting AgeWell is offering a special respite care package of three weeks for the price of two at most of its aged care residences in Victoria and in Rosetta in Tasmania.

All the sites offer 24-hour specialist clinical and dementia care, as well as a vibrant lifestyle program within a welcoming community.

For enquiries phone 1300 783 435.

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