“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (John Lennon)
At 72, Susan Fowke is one of the younger residents of Leighton House, a Gisborne rest home close enough to the Waimata River to offer its 50 or so occupants an ever-changing water view.
Susan’s room gets the morning sun. Her deck faces the home’s well-kept gardens where she finds joy in watching a pair of kereru flitting through a winter-bare tree. Her cat Freddy – the home’s official ‘cat in residence’ – stretches languidly on the single bed. Fortunately he’s not much of a bird catcher. Susan skilfully manipulates the wheelchair that has become her ‘legs’ for the past year as she talks about what can happen to best-laid plans.
It is seven years since this resilient former Wellingtonian retired to Gisborne. She and her only sister, visiting from Canada, took a road trip to the sunny east coast city in late 2008.
“I’d only been here a day, and I was sitting on the sand dunes when I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be great to live here?’”
The only perceived obstacle was that Susan had for years been solely responsible for her mother’s care. How could she leave her? Her mother, by this time in her nineties, was well-cared for in a Wellington rest home. Susan felt it was time she had a life of her own.
Downsizing made financial sense. She was able to buy an attractive house in Gisborne for half the price of her Wellington house sale, with savings to supplement her national superannuation. By the end of 2009 she had started to establish herself in the community, joining U3A (University of the Third Age) and a poetry group that she really enjoyed.
When her mother died at the beginning of 2015, along with the inevitable sadness, Susan felt a new sense of freedom.
However, life had other ideas. Not long after her mother’s death, Susan’s own health began to deteriorate.
“I started to get phenomenally tired and breathless. There were evenings I couldn’t even cook myself a simple meal, I was so tired.”
The doctor seemed to think this was related to an existing heart problem, but after several months there was no improvement. One evening she felt so dreadful that she rang an ambulance and admitted herself to hospital.Tests revealed a large clot in her groin.
“A surgeon came in and said ‘I’m going to have to remove your left foot’,” she recounts. “I couldn’t really say ‘don’t’. Afterwards I thought to myself ‘I didn’t even say I’d like a second opinion’.”
When Susan awoke from her operation she was shocked to find that her leg had been amputated well above the knee.
“Strangely the first thing that went through my head was ‘There’s only one way and that’s up. I’m not going to go down over this’. And that unbidden thought made an enormous difference to me.” Her recuperation was swift, something that staff attributed to her positive attitude.
The next realisation was that she couldn’t look after herself. She would always need help with dressing, washing and going to the toilet.
For a person who had lived on her own for many years, the idea of having to go to a rest home so early in retirement was daunting. But Susan has negotiated this unexpected challenge well.
“It really surprised me how easily I fitted in here,” she says. “I’ve always had ups and downs with depression. I never really understood whether it was because I was lonely – because it is hard living on your own – but I have come to realise that my depression was caused by being the sole person in charge of Mum. I took that responsibility really seriously. Coming in here being surrounded by people all the time has been so good for me.”
Susan finds the caregivers and residents friendly and there is always something to do.
“I’ve become a mad housie enthusiast and I go to a lot of the musical entertainment. Recently a Scrabble group has started up.”
She’s an avid reader, writes emails to friends, entertains visitors and has recently joined a sketching group, which she finds challenging.
Getting to her poetry group was another challenge. Even though she is able to get into a car, she soon realised that no one in the group had a house with wheelchair access. “Why doesn’t the group come to Susan?” one suggested. And so they did. The home was happy to host their monthly meetings and even provide a morning tea.
One of the reasons Susan thinks she has adapted so well to this sudden change in lifestyle is that during her working life she has done a number of different jobs that have equipped her to handle change. These include teaching, television research, selling real estate, freelancing as an oral historian, and caring for a foster daughter for some years.
Another recent challenge has been learning how to use a power wheelchair.
“It’s got a mind of its own and Gisborne’s footpaths are very rough, never mind that there are only about two pedestrian crossings! I never feel very relaxed in it but it does give me independence. I can go to the movies or go and see a friend for coffee, go to the bank or the library. But I can get out and look at the ‘real’ world and that’s wonderful.”
This story is part of a series exploring different living arrangements for seniors. The Going it together series is one way the Mental Health Foundation helps people prepare for a later life that has meaning, purpose and joy.