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Family-friendly policy also means someone to look after ageing parents

By David Hayward - posted Friday, 5 March 2004

There's a lot of talk at the moment about family policy and how best to give parents the time to look after their children. But this is only half the story and the real family policy challenge is yet to be fully told. At its heart is what I call the age vice. You know you're in it at precisely that moment when your parents are more dependent on you than your young children. And believe me, you get squeezed.

Once the grip starts tightening, you'll find yourself seeing at first hand various parts of our fractured and modest welfare system, some of which you didn't know existed when life was much simpler. The phone becomes important, a mobile one essential. Negotiations must take place with banks, with state and federal agencies, even the local council. Compromises must be reached, often after a very long wait and a difficult tangle with an automated answering system that knows not of humanity, when that is what's desperately required.

You'll get used to numbers not just because of the phone but because they matter more than names when you're dealing with a welfare system designed to stop the odd cheat rather than help the many who follow the rules. You'll meet private aged-care "brokers" you didn't know existed. You'll discover they've got public money to buy in services once delivered by a government department that has been hurriedly split up and privatised.


There are payments to start and others to stop. And if you get it wrong, there's always a chance of a hefty fine. You'll bounce against the privacy laws that benefited the lawyers who wrote them but which ignore the needs of the people they were meant to serve. You can spend a day trying to inform an agency of a recent development, only to find it's unable to take your advice because that's private and confidential and therefore against the law.

Whereas sick children are likely to get better, you know in your heart of hearts that your parents are destined for a different ending.

You'll suddenly find that it takes longer to fetch your parents than it does to pick up the kids. There are walking frames and bits and pieces that have to be taken along, and ageing limbs that struggle to get into modern cars or fiddle with seatbelts that seem to assume we're all young, when the demographics are moving the other way.

You'll get to see at first hand various parts of our health system, warts and all, all hours of the day and night. You'll see many times over that while the basic service might be sound, there's no money or time for dignity and compassion these days, except in glossy brochures that cost a lot to make.

There will be days when both of your parents are ill, maybe in different hospitals. On one of those days your kids might also be sick, and you'll have to choose whose sickness matters more. There might even be a day when you are too sick to care. On occasions you'll have to choose between a school play or a visit to see your mum who is not well enough to come.

You'll struggle to find a doctor to speak to at the hospital, and don't ever expect that phone call to be returned. You'll be told your best bet is to be on the ward when the doctor does his or her round, some time between 8am and noon.


If your dad's got dementia, be prepared for a shock, for hospitals are not built for a patient who wanders away from routines. You can turn up to find him strapped to a chair, unable to move, with nothing to do except spend the day as a Harry Houdini, trying desperately to break free from that terrible piece of furniture that simply won't let him go, no matter how much he twists and turns. What a deceptively simple medical technology this is, for it's not only remarkably cheap and simple in design, but it cuts staff costs and, best of all, its victims can't possibly remember the horrible tale they could tell.

You'll find yourself spending lots of money in parking fees and fines, and you'll note the terrible injustice of having to pay to visit the sick. You'll reflect on the evil mind that agreed to surround an emergency department with parking machines, which don't always work but which always expect you to have the right change.

There are new housing options to explore, and moves that must be made as your parents adjust to life alone and the realities of their less able bodies that are no longer able to do the repairs. There's furniture to dispose of and personal items to sort. There are flying visits to forms of supported accommodation, and suddenly lots of new elderly neighbours to meet and watch fall ill as ageing takes its toll.

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Article edited by Katrina-Jae Stair.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was previously published by The Age on 24 February 2004.

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About the Author

Dr David Hayward is Director of the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University.

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