‘Never too late to roller-skate’: lessons from living with a 92-year-old

In 2018 I lost my dad but regained a mum. Widowed, elderly and frail, she moved into our family home, opening our windows to another world. This isn’t unusual: one in four Sydneysiders live in a multigenerational household, and the fastest-growing age group living in such households are those older than 65.

Having done it myself, with all its ups and downs, I say bring it on. But to help you with the steep learning curve, here are some things I’ve learned so far.

Headphones help harmony
British detective shows played at 140 decibels tend to clash with pandemic work-from-home Zoom calls, school student study time and the general ambience of the neighbourhood. Yes, three generations can live together, but you’d better make sure everyone has headphones.

Jigsaws are dangerous
Jigsaws are a great way for 92-year-olds to fill in time, but they also rob you of yours. If you don’t abstain, then piece by piece, dopamine hit by dopamine hit, you’ll go from searching for a corner piece to searching the web for other addicts. Before long you will be buy-swap-selling in seedy jigsaw groups.

Chore rosters aren’t for everyone
Rules that apply to your kids don’t apply to nonagenarians. I find myself saying things like: “No worries, just leave your plates in the sink.” Or: “Sure, just dump your laundry in the corridor and I’ll put it on.” And: “Of course you don’t have to eat everything on your plate”. All of which leads to complaints of ageism – from the teenagers.

Polio survivors put pandemics in perspective
There’s no point whinging about lockdowns or waxing on about vaccine hesitancy when you’re talking to someone who actually had polio, and spent years in an institution recovering.

You’re given the keys to the city
The Master Locksmiths Access Key (MLAK) system enables people with a disability to access dedicated public facilities including toilets, changing places, elevators at railway stations and liberty swings across the country. It’s the only key to a city you really need, because it is either that, or lug around a foot-long suction handle rail everywhere you go.

The key can only be purchased with written authority from a doctor, disability organisation or community health centre. Similar systems operate overseas, including Europe’s Euro Key and the UK’s Radar Key.

On top of that, having a disabled parking pass is like pasting Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to your dashboard, but you must resist the urge to use it when you’ve left the elderly one at home. If you can’t resist, you need to get very good at fake limping or you’ll end up where you should be, vilified on thumbs-down pages across the nation.

Respite might not be a holiday for some
Going to a resort for a couple of weeks to be lavished with meals, activities and no need to housekeep sounds like heaven to me, but respite care at a nursing home, which offers all the same things, sounds like hell to my mum. Her reaction: “I have all that here, why would I go?”

Podiatrists are great conversationalists
The medical specialists of the foot world don’t just slough dead skin from your 92-year-old’s soles, they actually know how to hold a conversation. Sure, this is possibly a technique they’ve learned to distract from the whole scaly foot and fungus thing, but it’s one appointment where you’ll be kept on your toes by the banter.

It’s never too late to roller-skate
Midweek is the perfect time to invite your 92-year-old down to the deserted netball courts or indoor rink while you learn to roller-skate again.

Apply elbow, knee and wrist guards and use her (and her wheelchair) like an ice-skating aid. If she agrees to dress up as a penguin or snowman, it’s more fun. Just make sure the wheelchair brakes are up to scratch before attempting.

Repeat after me

Memory loss doesn’t need to mean the loss of kindness or humour. Being in the moment is what matters. If you can’t patiently repeat answers, write them down in a flip notebook so your elder has the answers they need, when they need them.

In the same vein, signs, reminders and arrows throughout the house might not be chic decor-wise (yet!), but they are part of the WISER approach to dementia care based on the principles of Montessori. It is wise – they work.

These past few years have taught me you can grow old graciously and good-naturedly; that getting old doesn’t have to mean getting glum. When Mum sees the ocean sparkling in the sun, she sparkles too, describing it as like the lamé fabric her father sold between the wars. When the teens and their friends joyride her stair chair, she threatens to bill them. When I tuck her into bed at night, well, it just feels right.

When we spoke about this article, I asked for her perspective. Breaking into a smile, she says: “Darling, what I’ve learned from living with you is patience.”