Big life, small suitcase

Source: The Australian 10-11 March 2014

Source: The Australian 10-11 March 2014

Kate Legge wrote a piece in The Australian, March 10-11 called ‘How do you shrink a big life into a small suitcase?‘ It was around the same time I had an article published in the Australian Journal of Dementia Care called ‘Human rights in residential aged care: a consumer’s perspective‘. The two articles look at aged care, mine telling some tales of woe, hers telling of the good experience she has had with her father. The positive stories are few and far between, and I’ve been wondering why. Perhaps because of her career [journalist], their experience has been better? After all, it would be rather stupid for an aged care provider to provide poor care if they thought it might get written about publicly.

So how do you pack a lifetime into a small suitcase? I was confronted with this when I packed a suitcase of personal, and special belongings of my friend Michael who passed away last year, to take to the UK to his family. I found this incredibly difficult, selecting items from his 57 years to pack into a suitcase. His family had requested some things, but as we went through his home and belongings before the trip, and to empty the house for sale, we came across various other items we felt belonged with his family. As I lifted the small suitcase at the airport for weighing and loading for the trip, the fragility of life struck me, and the visual of an actual suitcase, full of a very big life was overwhelmingly sad.

When we packed up my father in law’s home, and packed his life into a suitcase to enter aged care, it was confronting, and sad, and he hated it. Every single day, he said he felt locked in prison. Every single day I felt as if I had been his jailer. My mother in law died in her own home, and I suspect this is the greatest gift we ever gave her, as at the time we were able to support dad and nurse her at home. When she left their home, dad would not allow the funeral home staff to cover her face, and she headed off into the sunset, with the wind in her hair, from her own home. No need to pack her life into a small suitcase, and not once did she have to endure the feeling she had been locked in jail. I’m glad Kate Legge has been able to tell of a good and positive experience in aged care, but I do believe she is still  in the minority.

Having been advocating in this sector for a few years now, I have made many friends and colleagues who are working really hard to improve things in aged and dementia care, and I applaud them. They are working against the odds; low wages, complicated funding bodies, state and Federal government changes, and the challenge of providing good food, interesting activities, staff who really care, and who have been appropriately educated, can speak English, as well as provide translator services for their clients who don’t speak it, and so on. In my state, they pay staff at the Zoo to clean out the crap in the animal cages more than they pay our carers!


14 thoughts on “Big life, small suitcase

  1. Another great message Kate and thanks for sharing. Yes, it is very very difficult when you have to pack up someone’s home and there suitcase and sell some of there things they used to love. These times are patchy-a sense of sadness, sorrow, and a bit of happiness remembering all the wonderful times you have had at there home with them. My Grandad loves jumpas and he still wears them every day, and they are very fashionable on him and make him dress smartly-its weird but he actually dresses more smartly now before than dementia-maybe because he doesn’t remember-who knows. He also loves wearing cords and they complement him very smartly-i always love his cords and he is quite fashionable. I hope we keep some of my grandads jumpas and cords when he dies-just so we can remember him and so i(and other family members)can wear one of his jumpers when its cold! My Grandad hates respite care and we are going to keep uping home help until my grandma can not cope any more or until he can no longer feed(not cook but eat real food)himself. He can still eat normal food now. I have never heard of any one who has LOVED aged care however i have heard of people say that there family member is COMFORTABLE there. My little nana(great nana we used to call her little nana hence why i am saying that)had dementia and fortunately was able to be at home to the end and we still have her tongan shells. She loved Tonga and worked in Tonga as a dentist. Isn’t it wonderful to still have some of there items. Your life certainly is very very limited when your in care- almost like a guardhouse. Aged care generally means you don’t have long left to love. Carers are wonderful and sooo supportive.


  2. Pingback: My Mum | Pippa Kelly ...

  3. Kate – congratulations on being published in a medical journal!! Can you post a link to the article so we can read it? I hope you can ……

    And have a GREAT time in New York ….. it’s one great city!!

    And about “shrinking’ the life ….. I feel much of my life is in the documents I’ve written to replace what I’ve forgotten, and also much of it is on my computer. 🙂


  4. Hi Kate, as ever you’ve hit the spot with your blog. I remember packing my mum’s belongings from her nursing home room into a small overnight case the night she died (Christmas Day 2012). A life in a suitcase. And such a life. It was a stark contrast to the trauma of moving her out of our family home when circumstances meant I had only a few hours to pack up a lifetime. A life in a suitcase: such a poignant image. xx


  5. As part of my previous job it was my responsibility to pack up a resident’s room after they had died. Sometimes a family member would offer to do it or help, but not often. I always did this packing with respect and packed as though they were going on a holiday, despite being told “just shove them in, dont waste time folding them – most of the things are going straight to the op shop or dumper”. So sad to see a life represented in 3 or 4 plastic bags.


    • Dear Wendy, you were obviously a truly special person when you worked in aged care, which of course reflects who you are now too. Your recollection brought tears to my eyes… I wish you were educating others? x


      • What a wonderful thing that Wendy used to do Kate-there items are significant and they help ease the rawness of losing them💜


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