This opinion piece is about my dear grandfather, Trevor, who sadly passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 93.

Over the years of editing INsite, I’ve gradually acquired some knowledge of how our aged care system works, or is supposed to work. Thanks to the generosity and patience of people working in our residential, home care and retirement village sectors, I’ve managed to glean a lot about what happens when you get old in New Zealand.

So it has been interesting to watch first-hand a loved one go through the process, and to observe how an individual experience can differ from the expected pathway.

Let me paint a picture of Trevor’s life, or at least as it was up until two days ago. His wife, my gran, died six years ago, leaving Trevor to “fend for himself” as he put it. He lived alone and with the help of daily family visits, meals-on-wheels, a cleaner and a gardener, he managed admirably. Until he didn’t.

He valued his ability to drive highly. I would hazard a guess that after his family and faith, driving was the most important thing in his life. Yet as a family, we would collectively hold our breath as he drove to church, the shops, the cemetery and his old dairy farm where he worked many years ago.

But red flags started to appear everywhere. An infringement notice appeared in his mailbox for failing to stop at a stop sign. A medic alert button proved useless on the occasion he fell, split his head open and drove himself to the hospital holding a tea towel to his head. He’d forgotten about the button, he said later, sheepishly. We noticed he was writing many cheques to charities who would keep harassing him for more and more money. His self-care was slipping. And dementia crept in swiftly and stealthily.

We looked at care villas and rest homes but he was fiercely opposed to the idea. We looked at home care options, but the process of getting his GP to organise a needs assessment proved difficult, and then the needs assessment itself wasn’t easy or timely to organise.

Suddenly it was all too late for any of that, as his heart began to fail, and two days ago he was admitted to the local hospital. That night, he escaped from hospital, as he tried to make his way back home, walker and all, before he was found by a member of the public in a nearby street.

After that, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Not only was his health failing him, but I think on some level he knew he wouldn’t be returning home. And he couldn’t contemplate a life away from his home.

It does beg some difficult questions about what the right course is for older people as their physical and mental health declines. Was my grandfather’s thirst for independence so important that it should risk his own safety or that of others? Should his safety come before his personal choice and happiness?

It was daunting as a family when the status quo gradually looked like it was no longer an option, yet other pathways were met with such resistance.

Ageing in place is a complicated concept. We simplify it by calling it things like “independent living”, but in reality it requires services and people and systems scaffolded around a person to enable them to effectively “age in place”.

Ultimately I’m grateful that all these things enabled my granddad to have a long, happy and independent life. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach…and thank goodness for that.

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