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This article is part of a series based on the new podcast from veteran radio personalities Angela Catterns and Ian Rogerson, called Suddenly Senior. In the podcast, Angela and Ian chat to a diverse range of well-known Australians about finding themselves in their 60s and 70s and realising they are ‘suddenly senior’.
The highs and lows, the glories and indignities – it’s all there in this funny and thoughtful, modern take on navigating later life. Mable is very proud to be the podcast sponsor for the first season.
Few people ‘get’ growing older, in all its glorious realities, better than Jean Kittson. The 66-year-old performer, comedian and author has never been one to gild the lily unnecessarily and says she has no qualms herself about discussing her own age. Apart from anything else, she says, refusing to acknowledge the ageing process just isn’t helpful.
“I don’t quite understand not telling people your age, because to me it’s just a number. The less we try to hide it, the less important that number will be,” says Kittson, who has considered the topic more than most.
“It can be a complex and challenging time of life, with many changes and compromises to be considered and embraced; our health, finances and housing for example. But there are also rewards that come with age; the looser our skin gets the more comfortable we are in it,” she says.
Kittson speaks from a position of authority that began – and continues – with her own experience of supporting her parents, now 95 and 97, to negotiate later life. The challenges she and her family experienced, and the difficulty finding reliable and accessible information and advice, prompted her to write a book about it.
Published in 2020, We need to talk about mum and dad, is described as ‘a one-stop shop for information on how to support your ageing loved ones: how to protect their health and well-being, keep them safe and secure, and enable them to be self-determining and independent for as long as possible’.
“I wrote the book that we needed ourselves, with all the information required to help manage the difficulties and anxieties that most of us experience trying to support our elderly loved ones.”
“We need to know the choices available. My parents might have stayed in their own home had we known how to access the care to support them. Most of us would prefer to stay in our own homes. And there are services available to enable that,” she says.
Kittson says there were few surprises for her from the Aged Care Royal Commission, and she believes the system still has more to do to meet the needs of older people.
“My Aged Care is certainly getting better, more accessible. But baby boomers less accept being shunted to one side by family or community, and we’re not as stoic as our parents’ generation,” she adds.
For Kittson, the ideal system of support will enable people to stay in their home for as long as possible with Home Care Packages.
“We shouldn’t remove our elders from families and communities. Putting them with each other and not with us is a loss to us all. Making new friends is hard enough at the age of four, let alone 80,” says Kittson. “What we all want is independence for as long as possible. My book is about understanding the choices and getting everything in place so you can have more control over your life as you age, not less.”
“I look at my own home, the physical environment, the garden, the stairs and the bathrooms and I think, could I stay here if my hip goes or my knees or my energy? What changes do I need to make and what services do I need to stay home? To age in place? Do we want to stay here dusting my knick-knacks into my 90s? Could I afford to? These are just some of the things we need to consider,” she says.
Making Home Care Packages work
Kittson would like to be able to manage her own Home Care Package, rather than go through the frustrating experience, for many people, of an ever-changing group of support workers coming into their home from the home care provider.
“I would hope that the people involved in my life, to help me age in place, were people I chose.”
“Also, I would like control over the costs charged for managing Home Care Packages. These fees and costs can be ridiculous. Since the Royal Commission, these costs are more transparent and more regulated, but some people were losing a third or more of their package to administration fees,” she says.
Kittson also hopes to see some system changes and broadening of the services provided within Home Care Packages.
“The particular needs of older people should be understood, and be part of mainstream training. Pain management, dementia care, palliative care. And empathy. Staff in the health and aged care system must have empathy. Can you be trained in empathy?” she asks.
“For me, access to palliative care for everyone who needs it is imperative, but the current lack of funding lets our community down. More funding for training nurses in palliative care needs to be a priority, to enable us to maintain the best possible quality of life till the end.
“Death doulas could be part of home care packages. People who are empathetic, patient and kind, who are comfortable with the emotions of end of life and who provide guidance, comfort and companionship when needed,” she says.
At the most fundamental level, however, Kittson says it is critical that we value and reward the people who work in the aged care system.
“The value we ascribe to aged care workers should reflect the value we place on our elders so let’s express our gratitude and pay our aged workers appropriately, and fund specialised aged care training for nurses. They should be acknowledged and rewarded for the complex, demanding and important work they do.”
While Jean Kittson seems a long way off an ACAT assessment herself, she hopes the aged care system she might one day need has the right balance of priorities, including enabling communities of support around the individual and fostering genuine human connection.
“At the end of your life, the most important thing is family, not health. When I visit my parents, I’m still checking if they are ok health-wise but mostly, we just sit and talk and laugh,” she says.