The So-called Service Sector

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My parents are aged in their 80s now. They are part of a generation of Australians that experienced WWII — too young to participate in active service but old enough for their lives to be ‘bookmarked’ by the austerity measures that accompanied it and the prosperity that followed in the 1950s and the 1960s. They built their own house in a new subdivision of Geelong when building materials were in short supply and when making a home, and raising a family were promoted by the Government as the most important ways to build a nation. They raised my two sisters and I in a place that brimmed with family and friends, they worked hard in a family business, they were active in community groups — Apex and Rotary — and my father did a stint on the local Council: They were the Mayor and Lady Mayoress for a term.

On Monday a nurse from the Aged Care Assessment Service (ACAS) came to assess their capacity to stay safe and continue to live at home. My mother has advanced Alzheimer’s and my father is legally blind. When he asked what they did, my father replied, “We just exist.”

Last night I made dinner for them, the food my mother cooked when she was able: Corned beef, baby carrots, mashed potato and broccoli. I even made parsley sauce. My father does most of the cooking now, with my sister and I taking meals to them twice a week. As I left to come home, my father gave me a bag of material that the ACAS nurse had left for him. There is a big book, DPS Guide to Aged Care, a brochure on how to access a home care package, one on changes to aged care packages, another on five steps to entry into an aged care home, an A4 envelope, information about respite services, information in your rights during an ACAS assessment, information on the assessment outcome, and an Aged care fees income assessment from centrelink; none of which my father or my mother can read.

Both my father and my mother have been assessed as needing care. My father is eligible for permanent residential care as is my mother. He is also eligible for low level residential care and a home care package. My mother is eligible for high level home care

Without even looking up statistics, I know that in Australia we have an aging population. I also know that it will be my turn in the next twenty years. I also know that the so-called service sector is the largest sector in our economy and that it is growing. I also know that technology is rapidly changing the way services are delivered. But what alarms me is the lack of service that the so-called service sector offers my parents and all other aging Australians.

For starters, how dare they give my father the material he needs to make decisions about managing his life in a format that he cannot access. In the digital age there are other formats … such as the spoken word.

But that is not all. On the information for clients sheets that my father can’t read, the sheet that informs him of the level of care they are eligible for, is the information on what they must do next:

To view your client record and support plans, you will need to create an account at www.mygov.com.au.

In fairness, there is a 1800 number for clients who need assistance or cannot manage that process.

This is just one example —albeit a critical one — where the service sector excludes older Australians. In our technology driven society we are encouraged to self serve, to drive through, to access information on line, but I can’t believe that even a service designed to deliver information and care to elderly Australians treats them and their particular needs with such disrespect.

Keeping the Fire Going

Just a year ago, mum would line seven glasses of water on the shelf above the kitchen sink and make dad drink them during the day.

“He doesn’t drink water,” she would say, “so I make him drink all seven glasses each day.”

On Friday I call in to have coffee and take mum and dad shopping. There is a two-litre bottle of Solo – fizzy lemon drink – open on the sink.

“She’s drinking one of these every couple of days,” dad says. “She insists that we buy three bottles every time we shop. I can’t stop her.”

Checking the label, there are 28 grams of sugar in each serve. I tell dad that he has to stop buying it.

Already it’s hot outside. Mum is sitting with woolen socks and moccasins on. I suggest sandals. She doesn’t know what they are or if she has any.

“You have some mum. I’ll get them.”

I find her sandals in a drawer at the bottom of her wardrobe and bring them to her. She looks strangely at them and puts them on.

She has a nasty ulcer on her foot. It needs a dressing and a doctor.

Finally dad has reached his limit. He has organized and assessment. My sister and I turn up unexpected at the appointed time. We both sense that we are not welcome there. We both sense that the people who do these assessments look on us as the greedy daughters who want nothing for our parents but want only to divide their assets. That is how we feel we are seen. We are there because we want to make sure the assessor gets the correct information from them. My sister says my dad is the dumbest smart man she knows.

The last assessor told me how well my parents were doing. What a lovely couple they were and how well they were managing things together.

The assessor was a nurse. He was about our age and he was gentle with mum. She responded well to him and laughed at her mistakes.

“What year are we in?”

“What day is it?”

“What season?”

Mum is strategic. She gets the day and the date from the newspaper on the table in front of her. She knows the season. She recognises that he is holding a pen and that he is wearing a watch on his wrist. But when asked to draw a clock face on a piece of paper and put the numbers in, she is muddled. She draws the clock face and puts numbers in. When asked to put the hands in for twenty to four, she puts in the four with a small hand pointing to it then looks hard at what she had drawn.

“I am missing something … a twenty … there is no twenty.”

He moves her quickly past her mistakes and onto the next set of questions.

“What did she like doing.” Blank. “What was the name of her daughter in America.” Blank.

She covered up, she used humour; she was sweet and compliant. When asked if she ever got angry she fudged an answer. When she was asked about the cleaner she said how lovely she was; how she had known her family forever and how she did a wonderful job. She didn’t mention that she has cut her back to two hours a fortnight and that she is not allowed to clean the kitchen, the bathroom or the toilet and that she follows her around putting two fingers in the air behind her.

He asked her if she thought she could manage on her own. “What if it were just you alone, no Bruce?” That was the question that everything else hangs off. What if any thing happened to dad?

Two years ago dad had a bad flu. I called in to see him.  Mum was bringing in logs of wood from the wood heap at the end of the garden – for the only heating they have in the house – one at a time. What if he gets sick in the winter ahead? Could she keep the fire going?

Chocolate cake and shower chair

I am surprised how quickly things change. In the two weeks that I have been away mum has slipped further and further away: Even dad now wants an assessment done so that he can get some respite. Dad needs help with two things. He needs me to distract mum so that he can make the call to arrange for an assessment and he needs to cancel a payment she receives as his caregiver. She no longer helps him to get around. She has given up cooking – even though she still looks at her recipe books and buys ingredients for things she used to make.

I sit with mum and copy out a recipe from her cookbook while dad makes a call from the phone in the back room. She repeats the name of the cake, “flourless chocolate cake Sue Candice”. She has no idea who Sue Candice is nor does she remember the cake. I doubt that she even understands flourless.

“So I should make this tonight,” she says.

“No, I am going to make it,” I say. Then offer to bring the cake I will make later that day so that she and dad can have it with dinner.

She keeps saying that she will make the cake and I keep correcting her. She wants to mark the page so that she can find it and make it later. We mark the page then, as dad is still on the phone in the back room, we go through the book looking at the pictures and other recipes.

When dad comes back into the kitchen I tell him that I am going to make the cake then mum says that she is making it. Dad then tells her that she bought the ingredients, cooking chocolate and ground almond meal, some time ago. He gives me a block of cooking chocolate and the almond meal so that I can make the cake. This seems like a good compromise.

At home I make the cake. Then I try to call Human Services to arrange for the cancellation of the payment. I am on hold and listen to a Mozart concerto over and over and over. After 20 minutes I put the phone into my pocket, leash the dogs and take them for a walk. After another 45 minutes Vanessa asks how she can help. I explain. She asks for mum’s date of birth. I have two wet dogs on a leashes and I am carrying a bag of dog poo. I tell her it is sometime in April, the 28th I think and that she is 84. She asks me to tell her the year. I tell her that I can’t do the maths in my head as I am out walking. I ask her if she could work out the year. She is frustrated with me as I explain that rather than sit around waiting for my turn in the queue I have left home and I am out with my dogs. I tell her I have a bag of poo, two wet dogs and I add that I too am frustrated. I add that I don’t have pen and paper to subtract 84 from 2017. She puts me on hold. When she comes back she tells me that she has searched five dates around the date I told her and that she cannot find my mother’s record with the information I have provided. I ask her if she can search under address or full name. I try to tell her how difficult this is for me and that I just want to do the right thing and stop a payment that my mother is no longer entitled to. I wonder who created such a rigid system.

She tells me she is very busy.

I tell her that I too am very busy.

She tells me I will have to ring back with my mother’s date of birth.

She terminates the call.

When I ring back a few hours later, the line is busy. I cannot even get a place in the queue. I wonder how old people navigate a system that is there supposedly to help them but that really doesn’t want to help them at all.

I take the cake up. I also take a shower chair up. Mum and dad are not showering and this is a concern for us. I think it is months since mum last washed properly and she smells. She also has a nasty rash that looks like a yeast infection on her neck. I hope that with the assessment dad has arranged, there will be some personal care for her.

I adjust the chair legs so that the height is good for her and put it in the shower then I take mum into the bathroom and show her how to use it. I fix the height of the shower and the soap so that she can reach them. I show her how she can put her towel on the rack inside the shower.

Then I take dad down and show him what I have set up for them. I explain where everything is and tell dad that all he will have to do is to make sure the temperature is adjusted and help her into the shower. Whilst I am with dad in the bathroom she says to my daughter, “I don’t need that person to show me how to shower.” When I bought it, I knew that the shower chair had the potential to make her angry. But when I demonstrated it I was surprised at how OK with it she seemed.

The next day I phone dad. He is tells me they have had a bad night, that she is angry about the shower chair, that she fell out of bed and was disoriented. He tells me that she cannot cope with people coming to the house, that she tries to follow what is going on but can’t. I think he is telling me kindly not to interfere. I know that mum would be horrified if she could see how she and dad present themselves now. I am just trying to preserve her dignity. I think she would want me to do this for her.

Miss Molly

Mum is disappearing very quickly now. Last night I went to visit – en route to walking the dogs –  with a  Lancashire Hot Pot for their dinner. Dad is doing most of the cooking now and craves the foods we used to eat. I said I would take the dogs to the oval down the end of the street and she was not aware there was an oval there.

She has forgotten who we all are when we talk about each other but knows us when she sees us. I suspect forgetting us completely is not far away.

She is dressing in strange combinations of clothes. On Friday she had a blouse over a blouse and her woolen tartan scarf wrapped around her neck.

Still I see the strategies she uses. I notice that she focuses on the things she knows and won’t let them go. At lunch on Friday she was preoccupied with a dog tied up outside the restaurant. So much so that she did not have to be part of our conversation.

Last weekend I picked her and dad up and brought them here to have coffee and cake. Kezia was here with Monty. Monty wasn’t well and we were singing songs to help cheer him up. ‘Miss Molly had a dolly who was sick sick sick. …’ Suddenly mum realised that she knew the words. Pardon the cliche but it was as if a light went on. She swayed from side to side keeping the rhythm and joined in for the last line … I’ll be back in the morning with my bill bill bill.

Lost at Sea

My partner and I made our first joint purchase, an artwork ‘Lost at Sea’ by Tasmanian artist Catherine Stringer. It was highly commended at the annual Mission for Seafarers’ Art Prize 2016.

It is a beautiful piece of art; a night gown made of seaweed using the technique for paper making adrift on underwater currents; a feminine piece in a masculine art show celebrating sea faring men and ships; a memorial to women lost at sea; shipwrecks, and the treachery of voyages on boats.

‘Lost at Sea’ spoke to me on many levels: The ephemeral, almost sensual beauty of the almost transparent night gown buoyed by currents; a feminine work in a masculine show; lives lost at sea past and present; the treachery a sea voyage for refugees now, and immigrants then. But there was something else about the work that made me want it. I needed to own it.

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When the prizes were announced the story of ‘Lost at Sea’ was revealed. The artist had made it to commemorate the shipwreck of the Cataraqui on 4th August 1845. The Cataraqui an 800 ton sailed from Liverpool for Melbourne in April 1845 under the command of Captain Findlay. On board were 369 men women and children from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire all eager for a new life in the colonies. The migrants were mainly women but there were 120 married couples, 73 children and 46 crew. After hitting bad weather on 3rd August, the ship struck a reef off Fitzmaurice Point on the west coast of  King Island 4.30 am. Many of the sleeping passengers struggled to the deck only to be swept away by the huge seas. Others were trapped below. By daybreak about 300 people were clinging to debris. During the day lines were cast along the ship to give people something to cling to but by nightfall only 70 people were left clinging to the deck and by morning 30 more had drowned. More died as night fell again.

The beaches presented a terrible sight that day – strewn with wreckage and about 300 bodies. Only nine people survived. Eventually the bodies that washed ashore were buried in four mass graves.

In August 1995 my parents went to King Island to Fitzmaurice Cove to a special service to commemorate the wreck of the Cataraqui. Joshua Black my mother’s great great grandfather’s son was one of the passengers who died that night. My parents bought a print of a painting of the Cataraqui and had it framed along with a piece of slate that they found on the beach. The slate was part of the ballast the ship was carrying. I was vaguely familiar with the story and our family connection to the shipwreck.

But what of a joint purchase? Do I feel safe now in the danger of new relationship or does this make me more vulnerable. What happens now if we don’t make it?

Lost at Sea

Lost at Sea by Catherine Stringer

The Photo Albums

 

Yesterday I went to the post office to collect a parcel. At the counter I looked at the flip side of the parcel pick up notice and saw that there were three to collect. The two unexpected parcels were from Apple Mac. They were photo albums compiled by Simon. The photo albums remain the only contested item in our separation after 18 years together.

 

Simon took on the role of family photographer. He documented, sometimes annoyingly, every event over the time we were together. He spent hours fixing the photographs into albums. When we separated, there were, from memory, at least 10 volumes.

 

Elena in particular loved looking through them. They documented almost her entire life up until then. When we separated and packed up our house, Elena argued that we should put the photos in our boxes. She argued that they were all of her; that her life was in those books. Knowing this would cause a problem, I suggested she tag the photos she wanted and we would sort it out later.

 

Simon argued that he took them therefore they were his. We argued, that they were all of us therefore they were ours. He had them and there was not much we could do.

 

First he sent CDs with scanned copies of the photos, but scanned images on a CD were no substitute for flipping through the albums. Yesterday he sent Apple books. It was clear that he had spent hours compiling them and the production by Apple was not cheap. My first thought was to send them back, then, I thought they were better than nothing, the books would do. But they won’t. My memories are of photo albums with stuck in photos under protective plastic, photos missing where the girls have removed one or two for school projects, with short annotations on the side, who, what, where, and when. The books have tidied up, and distorted the way I remember things.

 

The problem was that Simon had given the books a title: The Adams’ Photos. Then he wrote a descriptive foreword about how they were photos that he had taken of our family over the time that we were together. He wrote on the front cover that he was the Author. What I was looking at was not a representation of our lives but his representation and his edit of our lives. There were more pictures. The ones he selected reminded me of others. There was a large picture of me in bikinis I bought on a trip to Bali. I would never have selected this picture; pictures of my niece’s parents-in-law from a marriage that ended 10 years ago. Another picture that I would not have selected. The photos in the book reminded me of our house, parties, dinners, celebrations, school events, my open water swims, my friends, my sister’s visits from America, Christmas at the farm, my dogs, my parents when they weren’t frail and my mum before dementia.

 

The rational person in me knows that his work was an act of kindness and his narration was putting his stamp on the books as their proud compiler. The emotional side of me was angry. When I met Simon, the photo albums that he compiled of his first wife and their life together were stashed in boxes in our attic. I know that he has boxes of the photo albums of us stored out of site somewhere and this is about power.

 

The books made me sad.

 

Today, I had one last try for the original albums. I sent an email offering thanks and saying how I appreciated the effort he had gone to. “But it’s just not the same,” I wrote. “Could we borrow the albums for a month so that we can select and copy the photos we want?”

 

Finally he agreed. And like arrangements made between hostile parents for an access visit of a young child, he asked me to get my daughter to make arrangements with him to pick them up.

 

 

Gaperon Cheese

 

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I ran a dining room for the directors of Fison’s Pharmaceuticals when I lived in London in the 1980s. Each week day, with Connie the waitress and Ivy the tea lady and Morrie my assistant cook, we cooked formal lunches for Sir George and Mr Bounds and their guests in the dining room and an informal buffet for the senior staff.

There was a fine cellar and the directors ate only the best British foods: Salmon flown in from Scotland, prime cuts of meat and excellent quality fruits and vegetables. Each week I would order cheese from a provisions shop close by called Hannells. My favourite cheese was a French cheese called Gaperon. It was a white mould cheese with garlic infused in the cow’s milk as it was heated. This was not a good cheese for the dining room because of the garlic, but I loved it so much that I always ordered one.

I think about it often. It was delicious with Bath Oliver Biscuits.

Today  I was showing someone where to eat good food and drink coffee in Melbourne. We stopped in at the Fromagerie at the Grocery shop in Spring Street. We were just there to look at the cheese display but couldn’t resist stepping Inside.  I was just about to ask if they had ever heard of Gaperon Cheese and I looked over and there they were,  a little stack of them, unmistakable by their shape, nestled in behind the Camemberts and Bries. I have not seen or eaten Gaperon since I was in London, but I am on the train heading back to Geelong and I have one now, wrapped up in cheese paper and in a little bag.  I can’t wait to get home.

Bastille Day Then and Now

July 19, 1950. Australian journalist Helen Seager, who wrote a column in the women’s pages of The Argus ‘Good Morning Ma’am’, was in Paris. The newspaper sent her abroad and her task was to write each day and file her report about her travels. The article on July 19 starts:

 

Paris Ma’am is a magical city. I will never cease to be grateful that I arrived on a day when every thing went wrong, and watched it blossom before my eyes into a gayness that makes our Melbourne Cup gala seem funeral in comparison.

Today is July 14.

All places of business are closed for five days and only the places of amusement await the world.

Parisians are tireless in their celebrations.

I went to sleep to the music of bands, dancing feet and singing voices, with the raucous but cheerful toots from motors splitting the night air onto atoms (Seager 1950: 3).

 

Seager travelled with her eyes wide open. She filed stories about the people she met, the places she visited, the food she ate, along with many incidental tales of the things that happened to her as she travelled in Britain and France. Her article the day before on the 18th of July helps to make sense of this one. It was all about arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport and finding that her travel companion’s passport had expired.

 

This article, about Bastille Day in Paris, full of its exuberant enthusiasm, has a resounding sadness to it as I read it now, a week after Nice and a day after Munich. Seager writes joyfully about sirens screaming overhead, everyone in the street, looking from windows. How easily those scenes of celebration are could be changed into scenes of carnage. The cheerful toots of the motors transformed into cries of fear, the sirens in the sky from aeroplanes overhead into the sirens from ambulances and police vehicles, as a motor ripped through crowds of people celebrating the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

 

Seager talks about the French people. ‘What I love about these Parisians is their ability to rejoice, especially at this time and age when the average native is not far from the breadline and the rich tourists swarm the country like a plague of ants.’

 

There is a message here for all of us as we ponder a greatly changed world.

Nearly Normal

Sometimes I visit mum and dad and they are entertaining old friends. Dad has made coffee and they are sitting around the kitchen table chatting. There is an offering of food on the table; bought biscuits, mum’s wonky shortbread, or last time, a plate of freshly baked scones with bowls of jam and whipped cream, provided by Mr Chic and Dianne. I boil the kettle and make my self a cup of teabag tea and join them.

Dad says friends are dropping off, but on these occasions, visiting mum and dad is just like it used to be. I grew up in a very sociable home and many of their friends from dad’s Apex and Rotary days call by out of friendship and obligation.

When it is just dad and me, mum is hard work. She is either mean and aggressive or she is confused by some date in the future or some task that she has to do. When she is aggressive she insists on maintaining her role as head of the household. She tells us to shut (often ‘the fuck’) up and insists that she knows what she is doing. When she is muddled over a date or a task, we sit patiently instructing her on what she needs to write in her diary. She writes it over and over again, crossing out and underlining all the time repeating the instruction. I leave after an hour and wonder how dad puts up with it day after day after day.

With visitors there, home is nearly normal.

The kitchen table was our gathering place. When I lived there I would come home from school to find Mrs Mahon and mum  sitting at our old kitchen table smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. The table then was a laminate one with white wooden legs and it was positioned longways at the window so that it was easy to look out the window to identify the car that was pulling up on the street outside. I would make more tea in an orange enamel pot (it was the 1970s) and join them. Current news was what ever was in either Woman’s Day or Women’s Weekly.  We swapped and shared these magazines and discussed their contents with her.  Mum used the table for sewing. When my dad bottled wine with his mates, it was covered with bottles, corks, sampling glasses and red wine spills.The kitchen table was hardly ever used for meals, we ate those increasingly by the telly in the rumpus room. It was always where we sat and chatted with whoever dropped in to visit.

Now we sit at the much more formal dining table mum inherited from her father. It is one that he made. It is positioned differently – the kitchen window is no longer the main focus. A TV set has been moved into the kitchen and now you can sit at the table and watch TV. Mum is incredibly proud of this new table as her father invented a clever way of extending it to seat more people. Mum wants one of us to ‘put our name on it’ – her way of bequeathing it when she dies – but no-one wants it. It is clever, well made and French polished, but it has a clunky base and is quite ugly. I wonder what will become of it.

Normally when I drive up the street on my way to visit, I prepare myself for whatever mood mum is in. When I leave I feel a terrible burden of guilt: I wish dad didn’t have to deal with this and I am ashamed that I leave him to it. It feels better driving down the street after a visit when friends are there. I drive away with my memory of mum intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sweets have it

This morning my sister sent a message on Messenger.

‘Are you up yet?’

‘Not quite, just having a cuppa in bed’

‘Can I Facetime in 10 minutes?’

‘No, being hassled to go for a run … dogs!’

‘How about now? Briefly.’

It’s about mum. I know. Lyn, living so far away and not able to help out on a day to day basis, has ordered a meal to be delivered each week. A great gesture but not well received.

When I called in last week the food had just arrived. There were two meals, one meat loaf and vegetables and the other smoked cod and white sauce. Both came in easy to reheat containers and had lots of fresh well cooked vegetables. There was a separate container of pumpkin soup, a generous serve of apple crumble and a vanilla slice. Dad was quietly pleased (and nervous – he knew what was in store for him) and mum was furious.

‘How dare she! I can make pumpkin and potato soup! I am not eating any of it! I love cooking. It’s all I can do’, she raged and threw the order form that had come with the delivery onto the floor and stamped petulantly on it.

Mum struggles with her cooking, especially main dishes. She has forgotten how to fry meat and sausages, make casseroles, and put a roast in the oven. When she cooks vegetables she puts them in water and boils them for hours. It appears that dad is now doing most of the cooking. My sisters and I worry that the food they eat has little of nutritional value in it, far too much sugar  and could cause them to become ill. We caught her putting the eggy breadcrumbs that she used to crumb sausages, back into the container of fresh breadcrumbs that live in the cupboard. Eggs, unrefrigerated are a major cause of salmonella poisoning. Neither mum nor dad could cope with a bout of food poisoning.

Mum still makes sweet things ‘though. Last time I called in she had made meringues and a pavlova and a chocolate slice. She had whipped cream and smoothed it over the chocolate slice. They were all sitting, covered, on the bench. She forgets to put things in the fridge. I disturbed her making shortbread. She asked me to go away because I was distracting her. She was making rounds, and instead of scoring them into triangles she was cutting right through and the problem she encountered was when she tried to place the triangles on the baking tray. I didn’t have the heart to tell her to just score the round and put the whole lot on the tray then cut them into triangles once they came out of the oven … as she once did.

Instead I went outside and found dad pottering in the garden.

In all of the old cookbooks I collected, the sweets pages have the most marginalia. From this I gathered that these were the most cooked things in cookbooks. I wondered at the time if it was because women could make meaty dishes without checking ingredients and measurements but cakes and biscuits required more accurate measuring. Meat dishes call for a few basic techniques and ingredients. Logically from this, it should be the meat dishes that mum continues to make and not the more complex cakes and biscuits. Once again I have to applaud her creativity and her capacity to stay as functional as she possibly can.

I think mum will get used the the meals my sister has arranged. But I so admire her pluck and fight.