We think of Jean Kittson as a funny, talented bubble of energy, but there is a very different side of the writer, actor and comedian that few people are privy to: her role as a carer.
Jean, 68, has been caring for her parents, Elaine, 98, and Roy, 96, (“he’s her toy boy”, laughs Jean) for about 20 years, although she confesses she started worrying about them “too early”. “I started making judgments about their ability to look after themselves when they were in their 70s: ‘Maybe dad shouldn’t be on the roof with two hip replacements, and Mum has a hearing impairment… maybe they should leave the family home’.
“But now they’re in their late 90s and still living independently in a retirement village, I see that people can manage for a long time. There are simply compromises and adjustments.”
Jean, who is known for her roles in TV shows ranging from 80s sketch comedy The Big Gig to Celebrity Apprentice 2022 and more recently the ABC remake of Mother and Son with her friend Denise Scott, says the trick as an unpaid carer is to organise a strong support team.
“That’s one of my main responsibilities as their primary carer,” she tells us from her Sydney home. “To get a team in place that can fulfil their needs, and also to be their advocate — to make sure they are heard.” The team includes people who visit Elaine and Roy’s home to help with showering, cleaning, shopping and the evening meal.
When Jean started on her “carer journey”, it was hard to know where to find information and support. When her father became unwell, and with her mother’s eyesight deteriorating, Jean and her siblings thought “alright, how do we get more support so they can remain in their own unit and be as independent as possible? That’s what they wanted.”
Through trial and error, they navigated the system and built Team Kittson — all the doctors, therapists, home help and other support workers needed to help care for Elaine and Roy. But as Jean wrote in her 2020 book We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad: A practical guide to parenting our ageing parents, what was needed was a central hub where carers could access reliable information about available supports and services.
“That’s Carer Gateway,” Jean says of the free federal government program, which was expanded to include the delivery of in-person services around the time her book was released. “It’s the hub that can put you onto all these services. A place that can link you to physical and mental health services for your loved one. Peer support, counselling and activities for your own wellbeing… and tips for making life just that bit more manageable.
“Write everything down — that’s my top tip for carers. But even better, Carer Gateway has a fantastic template,” says Jean, referring to the Emergency Care Plan. “I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh my god I’m going to print that out now, and fill it in!’”
So, what does Jean know about being a carer that she wishes she knew 10 years ago?
“I really love to feel I’m making a difference to my parents’ lives,” she says. “But I was trying to do it all, including making them safe. Now that I’ve learnt so much and I’ve got all the services in place, I know I can go to Mum and Dad’s and really be with them.
“It’s really a pleasure and a privilege. But you have to get support. And there’s help and support out there.”
If you care for a family member or friend with disability, a medical condition, mental illness or who is frail due to age, you’re an unpaid carer and you can get support. Visit carergateway.gov.au any time or call 1800 422 737 between 8am and 5pm Monday to Friday for more information.
Photographer: Murray Harris