Forever Young

I have never really thought about getting old. After all, not many of us do. Old age is a long way off. Mind you, at the tender age of ten I’ll admit that I thought thirty was ancient, but then didn’t we all? Major health issues surrounding my grandfather prompted me to think about getting old and I’ve come to the conclusion that old age is terrifying. In fact I plan on staying young forever. It’s bad enough that the government is boggling our brains with the statistics on how many Australians are going to be over 65 in years to come. More frightening, though, are the news reports that we hear of abuse in our aged care homes and the facilities that are not up to standard. What is the government doing to fix this problem?

I’ve faced reality and realised that I don’t have enough money to prevent old age, however I’ve found an answer. I’ve hunted high and low and I’ve finally found the person who I want to care for me in my old age. Okay so she may not be Australian, but that shows how far I had to travel to find the right person for the job. There’s also a slight problem of her being as old as my mother, but that’s a side issue. This is a person that every aged care facility should have. If I could figure out a way to market this person’s compassion and sense of humanity I could retire tomorrow.

Where did I find this amazing person? Well, I didn’t have to look any further than the aged care facility that my grandfather lives in. This assisted living home is in a small town in the state of Oregon in the United States of America. Sadly, I don’t believe that anyone there truly realises the true value of Kat (name changed to protect this lovely lady's identity). She isn’t an aged care worker; she doesn’t even have the qualifications that our Australian government deems are necessary to work with older people. When I met her she was simply the lady who filled the rooms with residents; the PR lady, so to speak. Her official title was Public Relations Coordinator.

What Kat had, couldn’t be taught. No school in the world could ever hope to teach its students to be the sort of person that Kat is. Our Australian government would do well to learn from Kat’s example. Here is a person who has had her share of hard knocks and has still come through with an infectious sense of humour and compassion by the bucket load.

Life has a way of toughening us up and making us the people we become. All too often people blame their circumstances as a reason for their behaviour or as an excuse for not having achieved certain things. It’s the people, who don’t use their circumstances as an excuse and who get out there and make things happen, regardless, who make this world a better place.

The first thing that you become aware of when meeting Kat is her amazing sense of fun and her abundant good nature. Her office is nothing more than a small cubicle off the facility’s kitchen and is filled with the pungent smell of bananas. She shares the office with the Menu planner for the aged care facility she works in. There was no where else to put them she explained laughing. This is the true nature of Kat, nothing is too much trouble and every event has a positive side.

Her nonsense songs are guaranteed to cheer up anyone and the elderly residents light up when she enters the room. I dare anyone who meets this woman to not be cheered by her sunny personality; you can’t help but laugh in her company. Had she allowed her circumstances to govern her attitude then she would not have got where she has today. Kat hasn’t done anything heroic so to speak nor has she done anything extraordinary. She has had her own share of tragic losses and has still managed to get back up and make other peoples’ suffering less.

Kat was born in 1949 in Washington D.C. She was one of seven children. Her mother was a fingerprint profiler for the FBI and her father was an auto mechanic. Kat’s mother gave up her job to be a fulltime mother and the family moved to Denver so her father could ‘follow his dreams’ as Kat put it. His dreams, she said, could be found ‘at the bottom of a bottle or on the inside of a woman’s panties.’ To say that Kat didn’t think much of her father was probably an understatement and it was almost a relief when he suddenly up and left home while she was in high school. Kat and several of her brothers and sisters were forced to take on numerous part time positions to help their mother keep the family home.

Kat graduated from high school, and despite a desire to be a school teacher, the finances simply weren’t available. So instead she joined the navy. Navy life agreed with Kat and she felt at home on the East Coast for the first time in a long time. She was involved in top secret communications during the Vietnam War and says that she thrived on being involved in important decisions during a time of high tension and that she also enjoyed meeting new people.

The decision to sign on for another tour of duty (normally three years for females) was taken out of her hands with Kat suffering injuries that saw her discharged from the navy on a disability pension. All of this was of little consequence because Kat had finally met the man of her dreams. They were married a month after she was discharged.

Kat’s dreams of becoming a mother were about to be realised with her falling pregnant soon after her marriage. Sadly, this was not to be and what followed were long standing health complications that would eventually lead to her being unable to have children. Devastated by the loss of their baby, Kat and her new husband transferred to Idaho for what would be his final tour of duty.

On B’s retirement from the navy the couple moved to Oregon to be closer to B’s parents. As Kat put it, here were the parents that she’d always wanted and never had. The dream was not to be. Soon after building their first home, the young couple were to discover that B’s father was suffering from terminal liver cancer. Kat stepped in and helped nurse him through the final months of his life. She covered the indignities of a dying old man to protect his family and spare them his suffering. It was Kat who held him in her arms when he died, and then cleaned him up before his family arrived. This was the sort of person that Kat was.

Two weeks after burying B’s father, the news was only to get worse. B’s mother, not only suffering from a weak heart and Alzheimer’s, (a disease that very little was known about in the `70s and `80s) was diagnosed with leukaemia. Once again, Kat was to step in and take care of this woman in the final years of her life. Kat laughs as she recounts her struggles with an Alzheimer sufferer. She says ‘there were days that the behaviour would infuriate me and then I’d look back on it later and have to laugh.’

Kat struggled to find suitable care for her mother-in-law. ‘Mom’ as she referred to her, refused to live with Kat and B. Her own marriage had suffered as a result of her father living with them and in her lucid moments she had promised never to place the same burden on Kat and B. Kat was stuck on a merry go round of facilities and services that sadly would eventuate in the rape of her mother-in-law by a maintenance man in one of the nursing facilities. Kat became the advocate for a number of residents who had suffered the same indignity and was responsible for the closure of the service.

It is stories such as this that cause the blood to turn to ice and make a person never want to get old. It also highlights the tragic truth that the abuse of our elderly population is not isolated to Australia and is an international problem. So many laws are in place to protect our children; shouldn’t it be the same for our elderly who are just as vulnerable and often just as innocent?

Kat’s grandmother was also to suffer neglect and abuse in an aged care facility. Having heard of what Kat had done for her mother-in-law, her estranged family members decided Kat was also the person to take care of her grandmother; besides the fact that no-one wanted the responsibility. So in true Kat style she packed up her grandmother and moved her to the assisted living facility near her home. This is where our family eventually found Kat. Mind you, our meeting was long after her grandmother had passed. In fact it was also after Kat’s beloved husband B had died.

This lady has indeed known so much loss, yet she still has an amazing capacity to help others who are suffering. B’s death was sudden and tragic. Kat returned home from a shopping trip to find B on the floor of their bathroom; he’d died of a brain aneurysm. He protected her in life and so too in death I believe B protected Kat. Such was her capacity for caring and nursing, he died in such a way that Kat would not have the ongoing pain of caring for him.

After B’s death, Kat picked herself up again; this was to be the most devastating blow she had yet suffered. She’d lost her soul mate, the man she had planned to grow old with. Numb with grief and estranged from her family, Kat set out to do the one thing she’d always dreamed of doing. She went to college, not to be a school teacher as she’d once hoped but to complete a business degree. College was to be her salvation from the grief and pain that threatened to overwhelm her.

Never one to do things by halves, Kat made the President’s list and the National Deans Honour list. It was this that led to her returning to the aged care facility near her home as their marketing and PR coordinator, long after the death of her grandmother. Here she was back doing what she did best, helping older people make life changing decisions about their healthcare and their finances. Kat also volunteered her services at the golf club and the community college, offering help with budgeting and coping with grief management

However, Kat brought her own brand of caring to the position by offering more. She was the shoulder my mother cried on when the heart wrenching decision had to be made to place my grandfather into a care facility. She is also the person who opened her heart and her home to almost complete strangers from another country (my mother and I) when we needed cheap accommodation close to the facility. How do you teach this brand of care and compassion to those people that care for our aging population?

So, quite simply, I don’t want to get old. Unless someone can come up with a plan that can convince our government to legalise the cloning of Kat to manage Australia’s aged care facilities then I think I’ll just stay young for ever.

My grandfather has since passed away, however this amazing lady is now a very close family friend who visits us in Australia and we love her dearly.