Reading time: 13 minutes
In this video Tracey Spicer talks to Jean Kittson about her book We need to talk about Mum and Dad, a practical guide to supporting ageing parents. Jean shares tips about confronting the taboos around ageing, deciphering a whole new world of jargon and finding the right specialists to help you navigate headaches such as Centrelink, aged care and enduring powers of attorney.
Hi, I’m Tracey Spicer. And now we’re going to talk about life, death, and everything in between with a national living treasure. She’s just written this book called We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad. Of course, I’m talking about legendary author and comedian Jean Kittson. Jean, thanks so much for taking the time to do this.
Thank you, Tracey. Wow, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for talking about my book.
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It’s such a beautiful book. It’s incredibly well-researched, it’s heartfelt, and, of course, hilariously funny. What I loved at the start was your story about your then eight-year-old daughter and how brutal she was about you and your partner and your aging process.
Yes, well, I cannot forget the day she said, “When you get older, Mum,” probably thinking I was old already, “I’ll put you in a nursing home and I’ll raze this house and build something more modern.”
I started off the book sort of talking about the way we often joke about aging, and we banter about what it means, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, we actually don’t know what it means until you start getting involved with a loved one’s that stage of their life.
We don’t know what it mean, what does getting older mean? What does it mean for health and living and for lifestyle or their lives, I mean, we all have lifestyles now, not lives, apparently. But, what does aging mean? And I don’t think we really know that until we have to start looking after a loved one.
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And we’re so bad at talking about aging and death, particularly in Western cultures. It’s as if we’re saying, “Oh, that won’t happen to me. It’ll happen to everybody else.”
Yes. Yeah, we are. And I don’t know why that is. I’ve thought that we have to talk about it because that breaks down the fear, and the taboo, and the ignorance. And we’re all going to die, sadly, but we are. And so, we need to talk about what that means. And when you talk about it, it removes fear and it gives you courage. And it gives you courage, not only to face your own death but more importantly, the death of your loved ones.
So, talking about grief and dying, we never did in our family. We were the masters of changing the subject. So, if someone said, “Oh, my uncle died,” we’d go, “Oh. Oh look, there’s a puppy.” Sort of try anything to smooth it over. What if I distract them from their grief?
But, I remember once I did a dinner, an after-dinner talk for an organisation called Good Grief and it made me reflect on grief. And we’ve always tried to avoid grief as parents, we want happiness for our children. Happiness is the main aim. But every life, grief is fundamental to our humanity and grieving for the loss of someone or anticipating the loss of a loved one is something that gives our life value, it means that we’ve loved people and they’ve loved us, and it’s important not to be afraid of it.
I think for my parents’ generation, one of the things was that when they came back from the Wars, they were told not to talk about people they’d lost and things they’d seen and the people they mourned. They were told to get on with their lives as if all that grief was a thing apart. I think they did, my parents’ generation never talked about bad things. They might’ve to each other or the war, I mean, they were literally told to forget it and see it as a thing apart. And I think that meant that we didn’t have those conversations growing up. I don’t know whether you did, Tracey, but we didn’t talk about that sort of thing growing up.
We never did. And so, when I had to become the primary carer for my grandfather when he was dying in recent years, I had no idea what to do emotionally, but also with all that documentation. And one thing that’s fantastic about your book is you give terrific advice on how to go through those practicalities while caring for your elders.
Oh, there is an avalanche of forms and things you have to fill out, and assessments, and different bureaucracies you have to get in touch with, and how to do that. So, managing all that is a really important part. You go crazy because there’s acronyms. Everyone speaks in Klingon. You haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.
And, you have to do it for your loved ones because if your elders are like mine, they can’t hear very well. So, if you’re speaking jargon, they have no clue. They have no hope on a phone. So, there are a few really top tips, like when to call Centrelink, before 10 o’clock, never after 3:00, not on a Friday, forget it. And these are top tips from people who’ve gone, done it thousands of times. And when they give it, they’ll give you a reference number, for example. So, you must write that reference number down. Do not lose that reference number. Tattoo it on your forehead. Use it as your pin number. You keep that reference number.
And then they’ll give you names of documents you have to fill out. You must get the name and the number of the documents because there’s thousands of documents. And if you go online, you might spend hours filling out the wrong document and everything takes time.
But, my number one tip is to get a notebook, write everything down. Just start there. Start writing everything down. Every phone call, every person you talk to, everything your parents say, write it down.
It’s incredibly wise. Then on top of the acronyms and the documentation, there’s the different terminology in every state of Australia for what a power of attorney is or what a guardian is.
Yes, that’s incredibly confusing. I felt like I should’ve got a legal degree, trying to work it out. But, I mean, one of my biggest tips in the book is to get experts to help you with this. But, I didn’t even know there was a… what an enduring power of attorney was when I started this journey with my parents, about 20 years ago, I started worrying about my parents.
And then, when I was starting to research the book, I thought, “Oh, I wonder if Mum and Dad have got an enduring power of attorney?” They’ve got a power of attorney, which means that you… And I was their power of attorney, which meant that I can do things for them under their instruction. But, an enduring power of attorney is what you need to put in place in case you lose the capacity to make those instructions.
So, you have to have chosen someone you trust and get it drawn up by a solicitor who specialises in these sort of things, specialises in wills, specializes in enduring powers of attorney because we got one with Mum and Dad, and then when I later was talking to an elder abuse lawyer, a lawyer who specialises in our elders and elder law, she said the way that I had got an enduring power of attorney with my parents was actually unethical.
So yeah, so because I was in the room the whole time. They didn’t talk to my parents. So, you must get a solicitor for your parents, not for you. They must have a solicitor for them. It’s not your solicitor, it’s their solicitor who is acting on their behalf. But we were all in the same room and they would just ask… Nothing was really explained. As I said, I’ve learned the hard way with writing this book. I’ve made the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
So, how to choose the right solicitor, what do you need to put in place. So, there’s enduring powers of attorney, then there’s enduring guardianship, which gives you control over their medical treatment, which you may need at the end of their lives. You may need to say whether to withdraw medical treatment, or sustain it, or not have it.
And someone needs to make those decisions. Quite frankly, at the end of life, often, it’s medical teams that will help you through that, but just having everything written down, having the right legal things in place just helps everyone so much.
I can imagine. You also suggest really reading the fine print if nursing homes or retirement villages are involved. How difficult is that when it’s an emotionally fraught time for everybody?
Well, that’s right. It is emotionally fraught. And you’re moving out of the family home, quite often, and you’re moving into a retirement village, or if you’re moving into residential aged care, we all know those decisions can be really traumatising because you don’t want to make any mistakes.
And every single part of aged care comes with a legal component. And everything comes with an agreement you have to sign, and those agreements are negotiable. I had no idea. You can negotiate with your providers if you have home care plans in place with your retirement villages, with your residential aged care.
You need to be able to read these agreements. You need to be able to understand the difference between costs and fees. Don’t ask me, I’ll have to look it up in my book. You need to understand and you can negotiate. You can actually talk to them. And when Mum and Dad moved into their retirement village, I just thought it was a standard agreement. Everyone just signed it.
I don’t even know, we just… This is what I mean you really need to get… There are really good people who can help you who can read these things quickly, and understand them and break them down. Really, and it pays to get experts.
And they’re not expensive in the long run at all. Everyone thinks, “Oh, if I got a lawyer or solicitor, it’s going to be so many hundreds of dollars an hour.” It doesn’t really work like that. There are great people who specialize in later life, financial advisors, solicitors, and accountants now, of course, are specialising in it because there’s so much elder abuse that now accountants are looking very closely at how they can protect their clients, often from their families.
And one of your top tips is to do your research, definitely get a financial advisor or an accountant, but do your research beforehand because that’s another area of great fear for people.
Well, research in choosing someone, absolutely. And often you do it like we do everything, ask around to who are your friends, and people who’ve been through it who have had good experiences, who they feel have good solicitors, good financial advisors who can help you.
The person I interviewed for the book, the financial advisor who I got a lot of information from, he’s really fantastic. This is what he specialises in because you need to, your parents, or your loved ones, or your elders need to know where they stand financially because everything has a financial component.
So, you need to make sure that the costs of your care are going to be covered. And how do you do that in the best way? And I’m not a money person. And that just does my head in. Even my best, does my head in. So, when you can see people who can just look at something and break it down and say, “Well, these are your ongoing care costs, and this is what you’ll need.”
Choosing a residential aged care, so we don’t really call them nursing homes anymore, we call them residential aged care, but choosing nursing homes for your parents, I realized that everything can be done in a measured way. It’s not guesswork.
Everything can be controlled and planned. And planning is so essential as one ages so that you’re not just reacting in a crisis or a gradual unravelling. You plan and you know. It’s really, really important, planning.
Everyone’s different, aren’t they, every family’s different. For example, my dad is incredibly organised to the point of being OCD about all of his documentation, what he wants for end of life, he’s gone through the ACAT assessment process. But even after you go through that, it’s almost like waiting for Godot, for something to happen, isn’t it?
Oh. So, first of all, you’ve got to ring up and wait for an assessment and then you have to, after the assessment, you have to wait for a package to be allocated.
So, I’m thinking we should ring up now, Tracey, and just get our own put in place. No, I’m speaking for myself here. It can take a really long time depending on your level of care. So, if you coming in at entry-level on a Level 1 of Home Care Package, that will be faster, for example, getting allocated a Level 1 than a Level 4, which is basically palliative care, almost. That’s a highest level you can get in Home Care Packages.
But, those packages, even on the government website, it says if you’re going from a Level 3 to a Level 4, for example, it can take two years. Many people die waiting for their next level of care package. And that came out in the Royal Commission in their preliminary, that’ll all come out, of course, at the end of the Royal Commission into Aged Care and Quality and Safety that these are the issues that are happening.
People are dying before they get their packages. So then, our elders need an advocate. You are their advocate. They need someone to help them get through this minefield of bureaucracy and forms and to make sure that things are getting put in place before they’re needed so that they’re ready and prepared.
Yeah, that’s right, planning, which is one of the key messages of your book, and also being led by our elders. I thought it was very candid that you wrote that anecdote about how you and your siblings disagreed on what was best for Mum and Dad, and Mum and Dad kind of went, “Well, this is what we want.”
Yes, exactly. I mean, the best-laid plans. When it came to my parents moving, we were looking at their house. They were okay, but their house was falling down around their ears.
They had an upstairs balcony that was just about to fall into the little pool. And Dad usually does all his own DIY, but he had two new hips. His hips were at least 50 years younger than he was. And he couldn’t really sort of fix the balcony as he once could have. And we were thinking, “Oh, the house. Maybe it’s time to move.” But we didn’t know how to make that decision.
I had a brother and a sister, and my sister works in disability. She’s practical. And her idea was for them to stay at home and get all the care into place and we’d keep connected with them, and we get someone to fix the balcony before someone does some base jumping into the pool.
And then my brother, who lived in Melbourne, he flew up and he’s a structural engineer by skill, by profession. And his idea was to sort of like sell the house, and he took them in his car and he drove them around to retirement villages, and he said, “No, you’re going to just sell and move into a retirement village.” And my idea, I built a granny flat in this spacious old garage under the house.
And I thought they could move in with us and that will be great, we’ll be this extended family. So, we had these all different plans and Mum and Dad just sort of were going, “Whoa, when did you kids get so interested in us?” So, we all going round and round in what they should do. And in the end, I went up to see them one weekend and they’d put their house on the market. Just like that.
And I said, “Well, where are you going?” “Oh, we’ll find somewhere, we might come and stay with you for a while. Then we’ll rent.” No, they’re going to rent. So, they’re 89, and they’re going to rent. You’re going to move from the family home, move into a rental somewhere, rent for six months, then move again. Oh, was just this… I was so fraught and anxious. In the end, they moved to a retirement village, which has been fantastic for them, and it’s flat.
But they have to get rid of nine-tenths of their stuff. And Mum said, “Be careful what you wish for.” She said, “Oh, what, we used to go on holidays and stay in motels. I used to say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a motel?'” And she said, “Now I’m living in a motel.” It’s not really. It’s not really, it’s great.
They’ve got great community there. And they’re lucky they’re there because since… In the last sort of 10 years there’s been strokes, and broken shoulders, and broken femurs, and skin cancer, and prostate cancer, and losing sight, and losing licenses, and it all just happens, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen. You just really need to have things in place and not panic.
One of the things that comes across so strongly in your book is that great love between your Mum and Dad, Elaine and Roy. Are they okay now? It sounds like they’ve had really rough time in recent years.
Oh yes. Yes. Oh, they’re okay. They fight all the time. They always have. I think that’s what keeps them going. A little argy-bargy gets the blood up. But, they’re extremely fond of each other. And they’re really a great partnership.
And when one of them is in hospital or rehab, the other visits every single day and holds hands. They really love each other and they’re a great partnership. And I think, together, that’s probably given them their longevity because Mum forces Dad out of bed. He goes, “I just want to lie in bed and rot,” and Mum makes him get up every morning and clean the entire unit and have a shower, put everything in the washing and hang the things out, Roy, and where’s my breakfast? And so, they keep each other alive. That and medication. But in the book, there’s just practical guides to being on top of your parents’ meds. Apparently, about 12% of elderly people admitted to hospital have had adverse drug reactions because they were on too many meds. So, Mum’s on about nine meds. And on Valentine’s day, Dad laid them out in a little heart shape on the breakfast table.
Now, that’s romance. Jean, this conversation has reminded me that hubby, who’s upstairs here, and I have to go and sort out our advanced care directive. We’ve been meaning to do it for years and years. But, the other thing it’s reminded me to do as a 50 something-year-old woman is to really keep an eye on my superannuation because it’s something that gives great comfort in a time of uncertainty, to know that whatever you need to do, you’ve got a nest egg there. Do you have advice for people about superannuation?
Oh, no really, because… Well, my only advice is that we have got a fantastic financial planner now who we trust completely. And when you do that, it’s such a relief. So, for years and years and years, we’ve been really worried about our super. Are we doing the right thing?
As I said, we’re not really financially savvy. We’re not sort of, we don’t have those… it’s not our forte, but we want to protect the things we’ve worked for all our lives. So, we’ve got a fantastic financial planner and not only for us, but we get advice from him about our kids when they’re getting older, and getting into the job market, and how they can look after themselves well, and estate planning.
All those sorts of things are a relief when you don’t have to worry about them, when you really trust the person to do the right thing. So, you really just want to find someone you have a great rapport with. And my number one advice, find someone you can understand, who speaks your language. That’s really important. And who gets to know you and knows that after a few hours meeting that they won’t bother sending any more forms to the house because I’ll sign them, and then I just file them on the floor with the rest of my financial papers. They never see them again.
So, but having really good people to look after different aspects of your life, bring in the experts, there are people who know what to do, and in super, thank you, thank you very much, Tom.
You are a wonderfully warm, witty, and wise woman. Thank you so much for writing this book, We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad. Jean Kittson, it’s been an absolute delight.
Ah, thank you, Tracey. Well, I feel the same about you. Thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you.
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