The Mother Load

Moving house after 34 years

I recently wrote about my thoughts on caring for the elderly in What Should We Do With Old People?

Every life situation is different.  Every family is unique.  Every individual has an opinion.  Tradition and culture aside, there is also the personal preference (by the aged person and their children & family) and the realities of what is involved in supporting the elderly in terms of time, money and resources.

I got a different perspective to my question from one of my long time friends, Fiona Dowie.  Fi and I have worked together but more recently my family helps put her kids through school by supporting her school’s annual Fun Day which is always a great deal of fun – but when the day is done we rest easily knowing that we’ve done our bit for her community.  (Her kids are older than mine, so she’s got plenty of time to repay the favour…)

Fiona is married with 2 sons.  Both her parents and her husband’s parents are still alive.  She is a white South African, born and bred in Durban who moved to Johannesburg over 20 years ago when she started working.  She is an only child.  Her husband has 1 sister who is also married to an only child.

We are a close family, to the extent that we consider my brother-in-laws parents our extended family and we usually all spend Christmas together. My husband and I both grew up in very close-knit families and both our sets of parents have always been extremely supportive and loving in everything we do.

This is the perspective that Fiona gave to me.

This is Fiona’s Story.

My parents had me fairly late in life so are relatively a lot older than most parents of my generation.  My father is 87 and my mother 78.   My father is not so mobile anymore.  He can still walk with a walker but it is a struggle.  My mom is still relatively mobile but she needs a knee op as her knees are now giving her a lot of problems.  My father is very dependent on my mother.  Also his circulation is not great so he has a lot of problems with ulcers on his legs.  Up until recently, my father has lived in Durban all his life.  My mother was born in the UK and moved to SA in her late 20’s.  She still has strong ties to the UK as her 5 siblings still live there, but she has lived in SA for longer than she lived in the UK.  Both my parents worked throughout their lives and although they were financially sound, were never cash flush.  There was never a lot of money to spare but nevertheless, I never wanted for anything and they made sure that I was well educated (such as putting their house up for collateral to cover my student loan).

We lived as a family in a house in Durban North for many years.  I think my parents must have lived there for about 34 years.  However it became too much to maintain a 3-bedroom house for only two people, so 3 years ago they sold the house and started renting a one-bedroom granny flat on my cousin’s property.  The flat had originally been built for my elderly aunt and uncle and they lived there til they passed away.  My cousin and his wife and family were absolutely wonderful to my parents, treating them like their own parents, helping out with shopping etc.

It also worked for my cousins as they travel frequently and my parents would be there to look after the property and pets.  The practical difficulties were the steps from the flat to the garden so every time my parents wanted to go out it was a big effort for my dad to get down the stairs and he had a number of falls which thankfully were never too serious but worrying all the same.  Also, being a working household my parents were home alone all day and their security and safety was an ongoing concern.

But most importantly, I felt that it wasn’t my cousin’s responsibility to be looking after my parents, but rather mine and that I should be the one helping them out… but this was very difficult considering they were in Durban and I was in Joburg.

Also, if anything were to happen to my mom I knew it would be very difficult for me to pack my dad up and move him up to Jhb.  At least this way if anything happens to one of them they will already be settled.

So towards the end of last year, my husband and I bought off-plan a 2 bedroom flat for my parents in a new retirement development.  The unit was only completed in September and we moved my folks up from the coast in mid-October.  It was a big move for them not just physically but also emotionally.  They had to leave all their friends in Durban.  I was petrified.  I worried that it was the right thing to do and worried that moving them from Durban would be too much of a strain.

My mom took the brunt of the move as she was the one doing most of the packing and stressing out about everything.  My Dad is not very practical and rather than taking away from the stress, added to it (love you dad!).  Although they had down-scaled when they moved out of the house, they had to downscale a lot more as there was so much less space in the flat they were going to. You spend your life accumulating stuff that is important to you and then have to chose what you take with you.  It is very hard.

In my view there are old age homes and there are retirement homes.

I would have found it extremely difficult to put my parents in an old age home but feel a lot better about putting them in a retirement home.  For me an old age home is like Gods waiting room whereas a retirement village is a lot younger at heart and still allows the residents independence and a good lifestyle but with 24 hour medical back up and appropriate facilities should they need it.  The retirement village that my parents have moved into, has 3 and 2 bedroomed cottages, and studio/1 bedroomed/2 bedroomed flats.  There are 3 blocks of flats with the main one having what they call the service centre.  The service centre is where all the facilities are housed viz a dining room, a “hall”, a lounge area, a small convenience shop, the office, a small help  yourself library, a hairdresser and beautician, the mid-care and frail-care centre.

Over and above this they have a doctor who visits 1 a week, a chiropodist and physio and a sister that is there 3 times a week.  The local chemist does deliveries as and when needed and they have a bus that takes residents to shopping centres for a small fee.  They are also in the process of organising various activities for example; church services, bridge club, book club and exercise classes.  You can get mid and frail-care services in the cottages outside the mid and frail care areas.

My folks flat is in the Service Centre which works well for them as they are not far from all the services.  To keep the dining room going, they are charged for 15 lunches a month, irrespective of whether or not they use them.  They can eat these meals in the dining room or get takeaways.  I love this as it takes the pressure off my mom cooking every day!

I was very worried about my mom and dad leaving their friends but  I have been extremely impressed about them making an effort to join in and make friends.  A lot of the units are still empty but moving in relatively early has worked well for my folks as they have had time to get used to and get to know the medical facilities, the staff etc and meet up with the few people that are there.

The biggest thing that bothers me about homes for the elderly in SA is that there are not enough good quality affordable ones around.  There are often long waiting lists for the well established good quality places and the private retirement villages are very expensive and not for the middle class elderly.  I recently heard of a private village with units starting from R1.3m and that’s for a bachelor flat.  Another thing that gets to me is that while I know that elderly people don’t want massive spaces to be looking after, why do we expect them to live in tiny holes.  Why cant the rooms be a bit bigger and more spacious?

I do think we got a good deal with the place my folks are in as the developers have developed a few of these types of complexes and have experience on what does and doesn’t work.  I have found that our dealings with them have been very ethical and that the way they have designed the village to work works well for the elderly.  Some of the places I looked at were affordable in terms of the initial outlay but their levies were crazy. One place I looked at had underfloor heating and the heating bills were split between all the units so even if I was conservative with the use of my electricity, I could still be paying allot cos of how my neighbours were using it.  My parents place has prepaid electricity so they only pay for what they use.

Did you know that frail-care in these places can cost anywhere from R15 000 up?  There aren’t a lot of people who have R15 000 to spare every month!

I asked Fi what were her views growing up about the elderly  

The elderly were to be respected.  My grandparents were very special to me but they never lived with me.  My mom’s parents lived in the UK and my dad’s in Drummond in South Africa.  While my dad’s parents were alive we used to visit them at least once a week (every Wednesday night) and sometimes on the weekend too.  We used to see my mom’s parents nearly every year with either us or them visiting, usually over Christmas.

… and what are her views now about the elderly?

Both my parents and my in-laws play a very important role in our lives.  While both sets of parents were in KwaZulu Natal, we used to make sure that we would see each other every 2 to 3 months, either with them visiting us or us visiting them, and of course we speak often on the phone.  My in-laws are friends with my parents.  My sons’ are very close to both sets of parents.  They get different things from the different parents.

How do the elderly in your family feel about living in old age homes?

My mom always looked on old age homes as “God’s waiting room”.  However, when I started thinking that it was time that they needed a little bit of help with their elderly state, we started looking around to see what was a available.  My mom was very worried about moving into an Old Age Home as she is still very young in heart and mind and they have a lot of younger friends.  She was keen on the more upmarket retirement villages but they were unaffordable.

I think there are old age home and old age homes.

I have been visiting places now for around 3 years trying to find somewhere suitable for my parents.  It has been a very difficult journey.

The problem is that my parents do not have a lot of savings, and although they got some capital from selling their house, are basically dependent on the interest they earn off that capital as their pension is not enough to sustain them.  As we all know, pensions of the old day have just not kept up with inflation and if there is anything that I have learnt from my parents experiences is that I cannot rely on my pension being enough to support me through my retirement.  I need additional sources of income too.

I was really battling to put them into an “affordable” home as they were either extremely poky, dark and dingy, depressing or although there were some more spacious options available like M.O.T.H cottages (my father is a M.O.T.H) they were either situated in horrible areas or they didn’t have sufficient support for them.  For example, MOTHS and Tafta and the likes do provide mid- and frail-care but they are not at the same place as the independent living areas.  My difficulty is that , with the help of my mother, my father needs mid-care.  My mother would still be able to live independently but she is moving to the stage where she too will probably need some mid-care in the not too distant future, especially if she has to go through a knee op.

The difficulty for me was that I could not “place” my parents in one of the old age homes/retirement villages that my parents could afford.  The other difficulty for me was that if anything were to go wrong with them in Durban, it would be very difficult for me to get to them with me living in Joburg.

Having them live with us would not have been an option as we would have had to build on accommodation for them or relocate.  There is always the additional consideration of other members in your family when thinking about how you will care for your own parents, I don’t think my marriage would survive both my parents living with us fulltime 🙂

I think my father would be ok to live wherever my mother is (he is very dependent on her both physically and emotionally) but my mother also believes that children should live independent lives, no matter how close a family we are.  After much soul searching, my husband “forced” me to find somewhere for them to live as he recognised that they were getting to a stage in their lives where they needed some extra assistance.  To my relief, he suggested that we buy them somewhere to live.  We could treat the property as an investment and they could cover the rates, electricity etc.  I cannot tell you how grateful I am to my husband for this support.  It was such a huge relief to me.  I nevertheless still feel very guilty as we are doing so much for my parents and not really doing anything for his parents.  I tell myself however that they are still relatively young and independent and one day I hope that we can give them similar support, whether it be financial, emotional or a combination thereof.

In my culture it was not unacceptable for parents to go into “old age” homes as kids are expected to live independent lives from their parents.

So for me it is not unacceptable and I can’t say that I have particularly noticed a marked increase in aged people entering nursing homes.  My grandparents died before they moved into a home, but my husband’s gran lived in one for about 15 years.  My in-laws have put their names down to move into one in their hometown when they are ready (the same one that my husband’s gran lived in).

My husband’s paternal grandmother lived with his aunt and uncle for many years.  I am sure it must have been very hard for them in many ways trying to balance looking after an elderly (often demanding) mother and a young, teenager daughter.

I think that the complex that my parents have moved into does work well for my parents.  But in terms of things that I am finding hard …It would have been nice if we could have

  1. afforded something a bit bigger for them
  2. found something that was closer to our home or at least en route to work etc, but all the places in our area are either full and have a long waiting list or a lot more expensive.  The bus at the complex has not yet been running so my mom has been very dependent on me taking her shopping etc. I don’t mind this but I feel bad for her as I have to try “fit her in” with my family’s very busy schedule and I think it must be tough for her to have to keep asking for help.

I have never viewed caring for my own parents (or my in-laws) to be a burden of any kind.  When I think of how much they have given to us over the years, it makes me grateful that I can now give something back to them.

There are so many differences in Fiona’s story to my own experience especially in terms of her being an only child and me coming from a big family. I can’t help wondering if there is a trend for only children to carry more responsibility to care for their aging parents. Just a question.

Thank you Fiona for sharing your story with me and allowing me to publish it here on my blog.

Also on this blog:

Please take care when commenting on this blogpost – this is my friend and I respect her decision no matter how different it may be to my own.

5 thoughts on “Moving house after 34 years

  1. securitychicCarla

    My eldest brother has recently passed on. Mom has to move up from DBN to JHB with myself and the boyfriend as I won’t have it any other way. i was looking for activities for her to do so she can also make friends etc and stumbled upon your blog. I didn’t think of half the stuff you mentioned. I don’t think I could put my mom into a retirement village as she is on her own (my parents are divorced). Hoping that we can find stuff for her to do as back in DBN she has a whole life. She taught half the community and is very well known. What a pity eh?

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