Firstly, because it is so often men who declare their relative will never go into a home. Talk about virtue signalling. The reason I was wary of Eddie Obeid from day one was his inaugural speech in the NSW Parliament (no doubt he called it his maiden speech) where he ranted: “I despair at the increasing trend in this country where our parents, when old and feeble, are too often taken off to … private nursing homes, rather than be cared for and cherished for their wisdom by their own children.” I’m sure Obeid looked after his parents’ day-to-day physical needs, or perhaps his many female relatives might have been expected to pitch in?
Secondly, women quietly assent to this ideology because they’re too afraid to look heartless. They have internalised the view that the elderly must be cared for by the family. But they know it’s them who will be doing most of the care. They are often looking after their mothers, their mothers-in- law and I even know of a few women who look after their former mothers-in-law.
Women in Australia consistently spend 64.4 per cent of their day on unpaid care work compared with 36.1 per cent for men. More specifically, the hours spent caring for adult family members has doubled for women over the past year.
Even when the beloved elder is ensconced in an aged care facility, it is the sister, daughter or daughter-in-law who is doing the everyday life admin that still needs to be done. We all know of some dutiful sons and amazing husbands, but it is rare to see a man collecting the laundry, buying the new bed jacket or sewing the names into the clothes.
I’m not hypocritical about this. I don’t want my family having to care for my physical needs. It is too distressing. Unlike looking after an infant, looking after a beloved parent as they deteriorate is depressing. I’ve told my family that when I become demented, as I surely will (I’ve consulted Dr Google), I want them to choose a nice facility – nothing flashy – and have me seated in a corner with the telly on and Vera on a loop. And feed me Tim Tams. For once in my life I won’t have to worry about getting fat. I will have a cheerful, hopefully well paid stranger to attend to my medical and physical needs.
I would love to believe we could have a system where the elderly stay in their homes with appropriate government help and that the extra care that is inevitably needed falls equally on the men and women in the family. We all know that this will not happen. While nursing homes are routinely exposed in the media, and now by the royal commission, it strengthens society’s distaste for institutional care and throws aged care back onto the shoulders of women.
Meredith Burgmann is a former academic, NSW Labor MLC and the founder of the Ernie Awards for Sexism.