Why we need to change the way we think about ageing
Amal Awad’s world was turned upside down when her father was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2013. His schedule began to be filled with doctor appointments instead of retirement luxuries, and his daily activities – including driving and going out – soon grew more and more untenable for him to carry out on his own.
From then on, Awad embarked on a mission to help her father and support her mother, dedicating every Friday to them. The more time Awad spent caregiving, the more she realised that her experience of navigating a new, disrupted reality with ageing parents was far more common than she thought.
This became the base of her fifth book, Fridays With My Folks, where she interweaved her personal journey with wider explorations around how Australians are ageing, and the way sickness and mortality affect the afflicted and those around them. She talked with fellow carers, doctors, nurses, specialists, politicians and residents in retirement villages to delve into their insights, unveil ongoing issues and discuss solutions. The book was released in February and is available in stores now.
In an interview with Over60, Awad discusses the country’s discomfort with ageing and death, her thoughts on being a caregiver and the changing children-parent dynamic that entails.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In this book you brought attention to the many ways in which we could improve the way we look after ageing loved ones. What do you think is the most important matter to address in Australia to make a difference?
There are things that we can do at a government level that are really important in terms of improving aged care facilities and how services are made available to people.
But I feel like what is really important is a societal shift in how we perceive aging. We’re afraid of it, we don’t want to talk about it, a lot of older people talk about feeling like they’re invisible … the community psyche, how we perceive getting old. Something we’re all terrified of, really.
I went to a bookstore to have a look and see what books are available on ageing. Most of them are about staying young, preserving your youth, and making sure you still look great and feel great. It’s like there’s no real sense of reverence or respect for the process of ageing, that you have come to this point in your life and that there’s wisdom that you can share, that you still have value as a person. Why aren’t we helping older people to continue in the workforce if that’s what they want, to keep using their mind, being active and engaged with the community at large, rather than feeling like someone we just have to take care of or look down on?
And these are basic – but if you can imagine, it took 20 years for people to understand that drink driving is not just a crime, but extremely dangerous, and now you see people have designated drivers. So, imagine if you had two decades of people talking about ageing in a different tone, in a different way.
I feel like it’s a slow-moving shift, I don’t think that there’s any quick fix, but I think we need to address how we think about it.
You also discussed about how getting to know your parents as they’re ageing is a “gift”. Could you elaborate on that?
I feel like most of us, and I’ve heard this from other people, still feel like children in front of their parents. When we get into our adulthood, we’re thinking freedom, detachment from our past – we want to just live our own life, and yet the minute we’re in the presence of our parents, whatever your relationship with them, you revert to be a child.
I had a very cultural upbringing, I was brought up in a very conservative family, and so my parents just always struck me as very strict people, a bit uncompromising … But [after caring for my parents] what they became to me was human. That sounds really silly to say that, but I really thought of them in a certain way and I’ve gotten to see how human they were, that they had this emotional spectrum I got to give them credit for, that my dad’s dreams and goals were very wrapped up in desires to also make his own father proud. I didn’t know that about him. I didn’t see the way my dad could become emotional about things.
There was more than one moment where I’ll just go, “Wow, this is extraordinary”, because it’s so powerfully simple and yet it’s beautiful to see this side of my parents. I really felt like it was a gift, because some people go through their whole life and not find that. They might even look after their parents or give care of some kind, but not feel a kinship with their parents, not feel the need to connect to them.
So, I think it’s just getting to know each other. There’s no real rule around how that looks, what it feels like. One person in the book said, “Meet them where they’re at.” And it was like a reformation of the relationship, it was like renewing things. And it just felt very much like a gift to me, because it means that I could sort of move into a new energy with my parents and understand them better.
Amal Awad's parents at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, circa 1970
What about people who don’t necessarily have the best relationships with their parents – is there also that kind of accepting and understanding?
A lot of the people that I spoke to don’t have good relationships with their parents – I would say the majority of people don’t think they have a good relationship with their parents. There is a lot of angst, resentment from the past, and what happens when parents get older and possibly sick and suddenly need your help? All that comes rushing to the surface. So, this person has to figure out, “How do I do this in a way where I’m not being resentful, but I can help my parents?” And there are examples in the book on that, where one woman was very vocal in saying, “I don’t think this is fair. I didn’t have a good childhood, I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents, and I don’t want to look after them.”
For me, the opportunities for growth [are] in another way. It’s not that you have to suddenly fall in love with your parents or they have to fall in love with you. It’s about acceptance, where you don’t need them to change in order to do what’s right … What this is about is an unfurling, an unfolding of your life in a very, very deep way, and it’s a pathway to understanding and forgiveness if possible, but also just acceptance. It’s saying, “I don’t need you to be the perfect mom or dad, I don’t need you to be everything amazing, you just need to be you and I would try to meet you at that point.”
But if I don’t have a good sense of myself and love or care for myself, I’m not going to be able to show up and not feel that resentment.
It’s about truly embracing the potential for growth and expansion in these relationships. If that’s not possible, then find the solution where you are not going to go crazy because you just can’t bear being with your parents. There are going to be situations where maybe things can’t be fixed at all, and maybe you’re not the right person to care for them. So maybe you just make sure they get the right care, that’s possibly a solution for some people.
Amal Awad's parents, 2018
To close this off – how is your father, and how are you doing as his carer?
I really struggle with that term “carer”, because I spend two days [per week] with them – originally it was just Friday, and now it’s a couple of days a week – I don’t feel like I am one, but I’ve been told what I technically do is caring.
My dad’s alright … he’s still very quiet. Kidney failure is a really terrible thing to go through, it’s quite tiring on the body, but my father is an active person, he’s very vital in a sense that he doesn’t just want to sit at home, he wants to be out in the world and he still maintains that aspect of his personality which I really love. And as I said, I just try to meet him where he’s at, I try to provide support and care for my father and my mother. It’s really about just offering support and making sure I’m not expecting anything of my father in terms of his own trajectory, his own journey.
I was quite depressed when I first started writing the book and then by the end of it, I had come to find a bit more peace. But you know, there are days where it feels very unfair, and it still feels a bit like “I don’t know how to do this better” or “how to fix this”, and then I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to fix it, it’s just I need to be there and support and care where I can.
Fridays with My Folks, RRP $34.99, Vintage Australia
This article was written in partnership with Over60.