These past two weeks have proven the words of John Lennon. Two weeks ago I was blissfully planning for two weeks of school holidays – granted, it’s in the middle of winter, but I was still dreaming of two weeks of unencumbered bliss… and then the phone rang.
I’ve blogged before about how my Mum’s health is not the best, particularly since she fell and broke her arm a couple of months ago. Two days before the holidays began, I got a call from my sister.
“Dad’s been taken to hospital with suspected internal bleeding. Mum can’t be left on her own, so I’m staying with her tonight. I can’t stay with her on Friday night, can you?”
I told her I’d pack a bag for the weekend and I’d be over there after work on Friday. Not the way I was visualising spending the start of my holidays, but how lucky that it happened when I had the time free to look after her for a couple of weeks, if needed!
I leapt into the shower at 6 AM the next morning and found, to my horror, that our hot water system had broken. Nooooooooooooo!!!!!
I’d always thought that when this happened I’d upgrade to a continuous gas system, which is far more expensive because you need to install a bigger gas line to the house, but on the plus side you never run out of hot water and you can program it to the exact temperature you want. We had this at the old house and I loved it. So I decided to go through with this, but it wasn’t exactly a convenient time.
But then again, when is your hot water suddenly cutting out ever going to happen at a convenient time?
I was lucky. I’d be at my parents’ place for at least over the weekend while Dad was in hospital, but the boys would have to bear the brunt of it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with getting plumbers out until the next week. So I trotted off to the last day of term and then went over to look after Mum.
It’s funny how you might intellectually know something, but when you actually live with it you realise the reality. I knew that Mum needed 24/7 care, but it’s not until I was walking her to the toilet and helping her with all of that, getting up in the middle of the night to take her to the commode, washing her in the mornings and walking beside her, supporting her with every single step she took that I realised just how much Dad was doing.
It was constant. She’s totally dependent. And if Dad was seriously ill or popped his clogs, we’d be in a seriously bad place with Mum’s care.
Long story short, Dad DID have internal bleeding from a small tear in his upper bowel, a condition that had obviously been going on for months and months without anyone picking it up. The doctors thought his breathlessness and dizziness was asthma. He just thought that he was eating too much liquorice!! 4 bags of blood to replenish all the blood he’d lost, a cauterisation and he was back home in a couple of days.
The Jones family dodged a bullet. If it hadn’t have been noticed by a different GP to the one he usually went to, we could quite easily have been planning a funeral and racing around trying to find a nursing home for Mum.
It brings home the fact that when people get elderly, their situation can meander along for years and then change in an instant. We have to set things in place now in case we’re not so lucky next time. This is turning out to be a huge learning curve.
So how did the holidays end up going for me?
The hot water system was an inconvenience, not a full-blown drama thanks to my Emergency Account. I got around $700 taken off the cost of the system because I work with someone whose husband works in a plumbing clearance centre. It still ended up costing just under 9K all up, but I had the cash. By Wednesday we were able to shower again. (Before that, I simply made sure I was standing up-wind from the boys… heh heh)
I haven’t had to tap the Emergency Fund for YEARS. But instead of getting complacent and spending it, I let it ride. Sooner or later, I knew I’d need it.
My situation with Mum and Dad is a little more tricky. Power of attorney, being put on their medical and “My Aged Care” accounts, attending medical appointments and dealing with people from their council who are supplying food, cleaning and showering services – this is a whole new ball game. Yes – see how out-of-the-ordinary it is? I, Frogdancer Jones, just used a sporting metaphor…!
I have a younger brother and sister. My sister is very practical and good with things like seeing a need and supplying the solution for it. Things like organising a walker and commode, going to medical appointments and keeping track of what’s going on… that sort of thing. Her schedule is a little more flexible than mine, so she’s going to carry on with these sorts of things. I, on the other hand, have put my hand up to be the ‘Admin person’, helping Dad with all the paperwork that’s piling up with all the new organisational things that need doing.
As you know, next year I’m dropping down from full-time teaching to working 3 days a week to be able to build in time to care for my parents a little more. I’ve pretty much reached FI and this has given me the flexibility to be able to make this choice. A small part of me is wishing that I brought that change forward to this term, but realistically, with teaching year 12s, suddenly changing to part-time just wouldn’t be fair to them.
The woman who came to assess my parents’ eligibility for Respite and Residential Care said to me, “So this is your part-time job on top of your full-time one!” I laughed and nodded, but that remark resonated with me. It’s taken a fair few days for me to think about and accept.
Here in the FI/RE movement we’re told to think about what we’ll do in retirement. We’re cautioned against racing full-tilt towards the goal of early retirement without working out what we’re going to do with ourselves when we get there. Plenty of people pull the pin on their jobs and then wander around aimlessly, unsure of how to fill the suddenly empty hours that head out in front of them.
I had it all planned out. I wasn’t going to make that mistake! Travel is big on my list – at least one overseas holiday a year, going to different places all over the globe (but especially the UK and Europe.) I have the food garden that I’ve set up, my knitting, quilting and writing. My dogs – how I’m looking forward to spending more time with them! In the fullness of time, perhaps my ugly boys will find some kind-hearted/short-sighted partners and reproduce, so I might be wrangling grandchildren.
I didn’t give any serious consideration that I would become a carer to my parents. It’s a stupid thing to admit, but again… intellectually I knew that they’d one day become frail, but emotionally?? That’s just crazy talk. They’ve always been around, looking after themselves and everyone else. Why would anything change?
I guess my over-arching goal in retirement was to engineer a life for myself where I have the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. That’s the foundation of it and all of the other things I had in mind to do are just the detail. Things can be added and taken away without changing the basic idea of my retirement – the freedom to spend my days as I please.
The thing I’ve realised over these holidays is that I’ve now chosen to spend a good proportion of my time looking after my folks. Time moves on and changes things and that’s what’s happened with us. I’ll still do all of the other things on my retirement list, but I’ve added another activity, that of Carer, to it.
It’s a big thing to wrap my head around. It’s a bit painful to have to adjust my view of my parents from them being the bullet-proof backstops between me and a cold, harsh world to a view where they’re the ones needing protecting. I know it comes to us all if we’re lucky, but I guess you always think that you’re going to have more time.
Still, things could be a lot worse. My advice to anyone reading this is to get your financial life sorted before any of this starts to happen. I’ll no doubt have stressors and strains that I have no idea about yet, but worrying about how I’ll be paying the bills while putting other things aside to care for my parents won’t be one of them.
Yet another reason why aiming for FI is a great idea!