Ita Buttrose – Caring, Community & Compassion

Ita Buttrose with residents at Five Good Friends

Article by 

Paul Koury

Ita on her caregiving journey and on the future of Aged Care

Paul Koury: Hi, Ita. Thank you for your time. I have been looking forward to talking with you for quite a while. You have been a champion for so many wonderful associations and causes within the health and ageing sector.

Ita Buttrose: Thank you, and it’s my pleasure, Paul. When I first saw your publication, I thought what a great idea and a valuable resource it would be for our unpaid carers. There is such a need for information because, as you know, navigating that aged care system is difficult. You don’t know where to go or what help is out there, and that’s why I can see the value in a publication like yours. Oh, and I just love the smell of print. It’s better than Channel No 5!

Paul Koury: Thank you. I thought I’d start by asking you about your love of music. Did you get that from your parents?

Ita Buttrose: Yes, I did. My mother was my first teacher. She was a very accomplished pianist. She used to play with members of the Sydney Symphony. My dad was studying singing at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. So, there’s a lot of music in the family. Even my grandmother used to play music in the silent movies. She could play anything and play by ear without sheet music. Then there’s my uncle Gerald, who turns 100 this year. He’s got a great tenor voice. He and Dad were very competitive about who was the better tenor. Music has been in my family for as long as I can remember.

Paul Koury: Do you still play?

Ita Buttrose: I don’t play. Because if you don’t practice your skills, you lose your technique. However, my daughter wanted to study the piano, so I gave the piano to her.

Paul Koury: When your father was suffering from vascular dementia, did music play a role in soothing or comforting him?

Ita Buttrose: I’m not sure because, as well as dementia, Dad had severe hearing loss. and he also had macular degeneration. He really had a very lousy health trifecta. Try as I could, The Macular Disease Foundation didn’t exist, so there was no help for people with macular degeneration. So, I used to go back to the Royal Blind Society to see what they could offer me.

Paul Koury: I ask because there is a lot of data now that supports music as proven to help stave the deterioration of memory with people suffering from dementia as well as Alzheimer’s.

One of the things older people don’t do as a rule is plan. We plan for everything else in our lives. We plan our 21st. We plan our wedding. We plan our children. But do we plan old age? We think we’ll sail into it, but life is full of detours

Ita Buttrose: Yes, we know that now, but we didn’t know that when Dad was diagnosed. there wasn’t the sort of support there is today when my father had these things.

Paul Koury: Tell me about your personal experience caring for your father and what you learnt.

Ita Buttrose: I did my best I could to make sure that Dad was always comfortable and that he had everything that he required so that he could stay in his own home, which is what he wanted. I used to get very worried about him because sometimes he’d say to me, ‘Those people across the road, they are very noisy’. So I went out, and I told them a thing or two.’ When he told me that, I thought, God, I hope he didn’t, but he did, and that’s my dad, and he was still able to remain in his own home.

Paul Koury: At that time, did your brothers play a role in helping care for your father?

Ita Buttrose: Yes, they did in their own way. My brothers and I would talk often, especially about decision-making. When Dad was approaching 90, I said to the boys, maybe we should have him assessed by ACAT. Just see if we are doing the right thing and if everything’s alright. Because it’s, when dad, I mean, those three conditions are pretty big. Anyway, I told him somebody was coming for coffee, that I’d asked a friend to come over. And so, the lady from ACAT came, and I said, ‘Dad, you know, I can’t remember her first name. I said whatever her name was, she’s here.’ And he came out, and he’d got beautifully dressed. He had his tie on, a blazer, and nice pants. Dad was charming.

And then, at one point, he looked at the woman, and he said, ‘You know, people would like to put us older people away somewhere and only have us come out when they ring a cowbell.’ And I thought, oh my God, he knows exactly what I’m up to. I mean, he knew exactly what I was up to. A lot of people assume they don’t have any idea about what’s going on. But believe me, they do. And my dad was a perfect example of that. I’ll never forget it. Dad knew exactly what I was up to. It was so funny.

Paul Koury: What sorts of hands-on tasks did you do for your father?

Ita Buttrose: He liked his food, so I used to do all his shopping and make sure he got a balance of nutritional foods as well as some of his favourite treats. Because Dad was losing his vision, I’d write what things were in very large print so he could see, and somehow, we managed.

Paul Koury: Today’s carers are sometimes referred to as the sandwich generation. because many are caring for their elderly and their families and are exhausted. What would you say to carers that are feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and close to burnout.?

Ita Buttrose: Great question, and it’s a big issue. Carers need respite. I speak to a lot of carers when I’m out and about. As President of Alzheimer’s, Australia. I see hundreds

of carers, and I can see first-hand that the majority of them are stressed out. I say to them, ‘Have you got some counselling yourself?’ And invariably, they answer, ‘No, I’m fine.’

Paul Koury: Carers can be the last ones to admit they need help until it’s too late.

Ita Buttrose: I agree, so I say to them, you know, you should speak with one of our counsellors. They won’t judge you; they’ll just listen. And I said, if you want to say to them, I’m as mad as hell that this happened, or that happened, then just say it. They won’t mind at all. Just speak about how you feel about things. I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk about your feelings with someone.

Paul Koury: You are so right. I had some counselling during my caring days, and I can remember feeling so much better after talking it out, even though there was no secret fix to my situation. I’ll never forget what my counsellor told me. She said speaking it out was the key to ‘better an empty house than a bad tent’. How right she was.

Ita Buttrose: That’s a good one. I wish more carers would seek out a counsellor. Carers can be the last ones to admit they need help until it’s too late. I would also ask them, ’Have you had some respite care?
No, I can’t possibly. I can’t possibly leave my mother or my husband.’ And I usually say to them, ‘What do you think he’d say to you if you said you were just in need of a break? What would he say to you? He’d probably say, ’Of course, wouldn’t he? He’d say, ’Take a week off.’ You know, that’s what he’d say, and you have to do that. You have to do it. But it is hard. And I would like to see respite care developed where the carer and the person they are caring for could perhaps both have respite together, with the carer not having to do any caring.

Paul Koury: Yes, you’re right.

Ita Buttrose: But just to renew the relationship with the person she or he is caring for. Suppose it’s possible to do that. But there’s a shortage of respite care. It’s always been an issue, especially for people with dementia and those living in the country. And you know, we need to address it because of all the carers of people with dementia and all the carers generally, but specifically dementia. If they all withdrew their services, we wouldn’t be able to cope with the load.

Paul Koury: It’s interesting you say that because I’m noticing the trend to multi-generational facilities now for aged care and for respite. I think with the rising cost of living and being time-poor, travelling
can be problematic, and for some, living independently could be the way to go. As the saying goes, ‘It takes a community to raise a child. It also takes a community to care for the elderly.

Ita Buttrose: That’s true, and you know we do have a tendency in Australia to isolate the elderly. I remember reading something that the anthropologist Margaret Reid wrote a long time ago when I was running Cleo. And it was that we shouldn’t put the elderly away like we do. We should put them in the middle of a town, a village if you like. But she said town so that they’re part of the community. I thought that was such a fantastic idea that we ran a program on ABC called Old People’s homes for four- year-olds, where you saw those little kids mixing with the elderly.

Paul Koury: Yes, I had heard of that, and apparently, it was very successful.

Ita Buttrose: Yes, it was. It drove home the point that once older people, all of whom were lonely, were all lonely. It didn’t matter where you found them, whether they were in aged care, whether they were living by themselves in very nice homes, but no friends because everyone had died. And when you looked at the interaction with the kids, they gave the older people an emphasis to start joining in, start doing things and start testing themselves. And that’s what we need to do. We need to make sure the elderly are part of the community in which they live. In the same way that we say that people with dementia have to feel valued and respected in the community in which they live. And we need to make it more dementia friendly. Actually, we need to make it more elderly-friendly.

Paul Koury: I wrote a piece in the very first issue about purpose and feeling needed. I know my father’s feeling that sense of I’m no longer needed also plays into his depression and loneliness.

Ita Buttrose: Absolutely, everybody needs purpose, and it doesn’t matter how old we are. You need a purpose when you get up in the morning. You need to feel useful. And again, the program on ABC when we did it with teenagers last year, the interaction between the men and the teenager was interesting to watch. They became advisors, they became confidants. We tend to dismiss older people. We have to stop doing that. If you’re lucky, you get to be old and not everybody gets to be old.

Paul Koury: That’s a lovely way of thinking; I never thought of that.

Ita Buttrose: Not everybody is fortunate enough to get to be old.

Paul Koury: I know that carers often don’t sleep well, yet sleep is so important to their well-being. I know you are a great advocate of getting a good night’s sleep. What is your routine when preparing for sleep, and do you have any advice for our carers?

Ita Buttrose: Truth be told, sometimes I don’t sleep well either. I mean, it is just one of those things, I think. As you get older, some nights you just sort of think, brain stop thinking. So, I might read a book a bit and see if that’ll do the trick. But I think exercise is important. So, I do a lot of exercises, and so I think you have to wear yourself out a bit.

Paul Koury: That’s a good point. I read you like to walk an hour a day. Do you still manage that now that Cleo, your dog, has passed?

Ita Buttrose: Well, again, these days, I go to a little gym four times a week. I do four sessions a week at my gym now. Yes. And I do walk, not an hour, but I do walk about half an hour every day.

Paul Koury: Ita, I still have so many things Id like to ask you. I think we may just have to make this into a two-part feature article.

Ita Buttrose: Well, caring for the elderly is such a huge topic that I can understand the need for a two-part article. We used to run them in Women’s Weekly often.

Paul Koury: Thanks, Ita, I’ll sign off for now, but I have one last question before I go. One of your brilliant ideas when running Cleo Magazine was the introduction of the sealed section centrefold. Do you think something like that could work in the Australian Carers Guide?

Ita Buttrose: Oh, that’s cheeky. Well, you never know. They might all think it would be nice to drop the gear but I think as you get older, you realise that it’s best to keep a little bit of mystery about yourself.

Paul Koury: Thanks, Ita. You always had a great sense of humour. ACG

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