Tag Archives: identity

A question of identity: part 2: the fight with Authority

picture of Auckland sunset

If you didn’t read the previous post, my sister had died in New Zealand, and her husband, an Australian, wanted to come back to Australia. Frank was a resident in an accredited aged care facility. How hard would it be to transfer him from one home, to another in Australia? Should be easy, surely? After all, the New Zealanders are our first cousins. We don’t need visas to visit each others’ countries, Australia has the largest population of Kiwis outside Auckland, we are rivals in rugby, netball, hockey, cricket, and we share the ANZAC tradition. Not to mention Phar Lap and Russel Crowe.

The first hurdle was to find his passport. When I said everything was jumbled up in that lock-up, I meant everything. Somewhere in that mess was Frank’s documents. While Cathy fought with the piles of stuff in New Zealand, I took up arms with Authority in Australia. I soon learnt that getting Frank into a home here wasn’t going to be easy. Authority would not accept any of the documentation from New Zealand. Frank’s physical state, and his financial state, had to be assessed in Australia. To be considered for a place in an aged care facility, he would require both of those assessment documents, and in both cases, Frank would have to be in Australia before assessment could be considered. Further, although I had Enduring Power of Attorney in New Zealand, this mattered not a jot in Australia, which caused delays as Frank, who suffers from dementia, was obliged to give his permission for disclosure of information. I had hoped, you see, that if the assessment people in Australia were given medical reports from the aged care hospital in New Zealand, this could fast-track the process. In hind-sight, it was a total waste of time.

After writing to our local member of parliament for help without success, my husband and I wrote to Tanya Plibersek (the Federal Minister for Health) and to Julia Gillard (the Prime Minister). In that letter we outlined Frank’s situation, described the steps we had taken to date, and proposed a compromise, wherein Frank would be admitted to a home, based on the New Zealand assessment of his condition. At that time, he could be re-assessed and moved, if need be. He wasn’t asking for financial support, having ample funds to pay for his accommodation. He was one lonely old man, wanting to spend what was left of his life in the country of his birth. Surely the rules could be bent? Just a little? Christmas caused even further delays, but after a gentle reminder had generated a ‘the cheque is in the mail’ response, we received a reply laced with sympathetic platitudes and the underlying message, them’s the rules – tough. (We had asked why New Zealand’s health care system was being seen as no better than a third world country’s, when our governments are negotiating a joint pharmaceutical benefits scheme, but that was adroitly ignored.)

The next step was going to be to approach the media, and let the shock jocks battle it out on our behalf, but it had been four months and nothing had been achieved. I decided, with some trepidation, to take on Frank’s care for the time it will take to get him into proper aged care. Because proper aged care sure ain’t me. I’m not a nurse, I’m not a sympathetic person. I’m an introverted, non-social woman in her sixties who loves her own company. Still, faced with no choice, I’ll do my best. But I digress.

This article is entitled ‘a question of identity’ for a reason. Because in our digital world, with the internet and databases, if you want to prove you exist, you need bits of paper. Even the Australian passport Cathy eventually found under a mountain of stuff in the lock-up would not be enough to satisfy the Australian Authorities. The 26-page application for an aged pension (with 28 pages of accompanying explanatory notes) indicated what was needed. Despite the fact you can’t get a passport without showing your birth certificate, and date and place of birth are shown on the passport, a passport was worth 70 points out of a required 100. What’s more, Frank would have to show he’d lived in Australia for at least ten years, a minimum of five years contiguously.

You might wonder why. The reason is financial. At one time, people from countries like Greece and Italy (and no doubt others – I’m not singling anybody out, here) would migrate to Australia, live there long enough to gain Australian citizenship (two years), then go back home. They could claim an Australian pension, which, given the exchange rate and cost of living, gave them a very comfortable living in another country, for very little contribution to the Australian tax coffers.

How to prove Frank’s claim? Frank would have had tax records lodged before 1972 when he left for New Zealand, but I wouldn’t think the good folk at Centrelink, a monolithic Government body which administers all welfare payments, would want to go looking for those. Fortunately, the wonderful Cathy had found Frank’s apprenticeship papers, his birth certificate and his marriage certificate amongst the remains of his life. So we should be okay for that. I hope.

Frank is booked on a flight for Australia next weekend. A person from the Aged Care Assessment Team (ACAT – don’t you love this acronym shit?) will visit him the following Thursday. In the meantime, he will have to accompany me to open a bank account, apply for a pension and grant me Enduring Power of Attorney so I can sign documents such as the application for a place in an aged care facility, on his behalf. We’ll have his sheaf of papers, proving he exists.

So let that be a lesson. As far as Authority is concerned, you might be nothing but a number being crunched through a process, but, despite the e-revolution, bits of paper do matter – very, very much. To misquote Tolkien, keep them secret, and keep them safe.

The photo? That’s the sun setting over Auckland – somehow very fitting, don’t you think?

A question of Identity : part 1: the remains of a life

ScrimshawMy sister died last September. Oh, don’t feel sorry. She’d had a good life and towards the end, she was more than ready to go. Always an intensely private person, the inevitably intrusive care became harder and harder to take, increasingly an affront to her dignity.

Even so, death has its impacts, mostly on the only one really close to her, her husband, Frank. They’d been together for forty years and more, no children, few friends. My husband and I travelled to New Zealand from our home in Australia to attend the funeral and do what we could to console Frank. We held the funeral service at the nursing home where Frank and my sister had lived for the past several years, a brief and simple service shared with a group of inmates at the home. Their turn would be coming up, soon enough. We were the only relatives there. The only person outside the hospital to attend was the gentleman who looked after my sister and her husband’s financial affairs.

One thing about death is, life goes on. Since we were now responsible for Frank, who has dementia, we did what we could to sort out his affairs in the few days we had in New Zealand. We were told he and his wife were admitted to an aged care hospital in the space of a day. They went to see a doctor, who took one look, and sent them into care. They never went home again. The house, of course, had to be sold and to do that, it had to be cleared. The contents were packed into a storage locker. You know the type. A space like a huge garage, for which you had the keys.

Despite the threat of rain, we obtained the keys to see what was there, thinking to perhaps take some important papers and family photos with us. Getting the lock-up open was a chore in itself. The lock hadn’t been opened for several years, and needed WD40 and some elbow grease. The door lifted, and there it was. The remains of a life.

Everything from a house was in there. Whoever had transported it, hadn’t packed the goods properly. Items had been shoved into old grocery boxes, glasses weren’t wrapped, nothing was sorted. We were confronted with a higgledy-piggledy pile of… stuff. A lathe stood next to a glass-fronted dresser. Frank’s tools (he used to be a master carpenter) in their home-made wooden boxes, were to the front. Figurines stood next to anonymous boxes. The frame for the water bed, built by Frank and inscribed F L, stood against the wall. The bladder was somewhere at the top and back, beyond the sofa. In a few hours we examined what we could, feeling a bit like mountaineers without safety gear as we clambered up precarious piles. We took a few family photos, a magnificent piece of scrimshaw, and a few of Frank’s antique and beautiful tools with us. It was all we could manage.

Fortunately for us, a lovely lady who is now a friend, offered to sort through the lock-up, looking for photos and documents. Everything that could not be sold, would be disposed of. Over the next several weeks, she would tell me what she found, some funny, some odd, some poignant. The people who had emptied the house, had not even thought to throw away food. She found packets of biscuits and other perishables all thrown in with the pots and pans, and out-of-date medication.

When it was all over, the auctions held, the lock-up emptied, Cathy told me of the profound effect the process had had on her and her husband. Fragments of a life, a thing of the past, all too soon forgotten in the march of time. Yet Cathy saw a life well-lived, not the old and frail couple she’d known at the nursing home. Time was when they were young and fit and strong. Frank and my sister had travelled extensively around New Zealand, had lived on both North and South islands. They would go out in their station wagon and see the world. At night, travelling on the cheap, they slept on a mattress in the back of the car. They had also been overseas to America, a couple of times back to Australia. And a few family members had visited them. Sure, gravity had its way over the years, as it does with us all, but in their fifties they still had a photo taken with Santa. I guess for me, it was enough to know that life had been good for them.

Meanwhile, stage two was unfolding. Frank was born in Australia, and he and my sister married in Australia. In the early nineteen-seventies, they decided to leave family ties behind and travel to New Zealand, where they’d lived ever since. But Frank had mentioned to me when I went to visit them briefly a couple of years ago, that he wanted to come home. To Australia. And at my sister’s funeral, he said that again. “I want to come home.”

Of course, I agreed to make it so. It would be easy. Of course it would.