Andy says it’s hard to put into words what it’s been like caring for his mother for the last seven years.
Andy often visits his local Bunnings garden centre at weekends to find plants for his Mum's garden.

She has dementia but remains fiercely independent, refusing outside help.

Andy is her sole carer.

“What it comes down to, however, is all I’m doing is giving back. Mum cared for me since I was a baby, so caring for her is the least I can do. I’m just someone who’s trying to do the best they can.”

Andy juggles his caring role with his technician’s job with NZ Air Traffic Control. Essentially, he looks after the Auckland Tower, which he has done for the last 33 years.

Due to airline industry disruptions because of the COVID crisis, there have been many redundancies, which adds yet another layer of stress – Andy doesn’t know if he’ll be next. He says keeping it together can be hard.

“There are times I lose my marbles, always when I’m tired.”

Andy says his team leader is fantastic, and a great example of how employers can support working carers.

“Just so understanding. Gives me a great deal of flexibility, comes to chat and to check up on me, asks if there’s anything they can do. I’ve been granted the yearly 10 days of domestic leave, which is usually allocated for parents with kids, and it makes such a difference.”

“If I ask for a couple of hours off, it’s granted immediately. I do a really good job as well, so I do believe it’s a two way street.”

Andy’s team leader also goes the extra mile when it comes to further training.

“I can’t travel anymore to Christchurch or other areas to do course requirements for my job, so they find ways for me to keep up the training to stay current with my competencies.”

The Covid-19 lockdown was a blessing in disguise for Andy, who travelled to work each day.

“It’s been so good that we’ve had to introduce new ways of working – brilliant for me!”

He says he actually loved Level 4.

“I had to keep going to my job, of course, because of the nature of what I do. Having the roads so quiet was wonderful, as commuting was so fast. And I finally had a reason to stop people from visiting Mum. People mean well, but as a vulnerable person, I didn’t want her to be exposed to potential infections.”

Andy has a twin brother in the UK, who would love to come home but is currently unable to. Someone from the DHB visits during the week for a few minutes each morning to help his Mum and ensure she takes her medication.

His 95 year old godmother also lends a hand every fortnight, often taking Andy’s Mum to a cafe in Cornwall Park for a coffee and treats.

“She’s brilliant, but she is 95. I can’t ask her to do more.”

Despite his Mum having a background in geriatric care (so they knew how to seek the right professional advice about available help) Andy says they fell through the gaps because of their personal situation.

“It’s her independence, mostly. If some outsider came in to do my role she would erupt. I’ve tried – I’ve witnessed it. She’s a tiny Scottish woman but can be very stubborn. She won’t stand for others helping, so I simply have to do things myself. I haven’t been able to access respite because of this – Mum won’t have a bar of it.”

So what does a regular week look like for Andy?

“If it’s a regular week without any medical events or dramas, I get home from work about 4.30pm, take a half hour to relax with a beer, then I go to Mum’s with food I’ve prepared. I can’t leave food at her place as it will disappear.”

“Once there I feed the cat – it’s so active and chatty, a great companion for Mum. I’ll make dinner, with her peeling the veggies as she likes to feel useful. I pour her a thimbleful of red wine to relax with over dinner.”

“We’ll eat together, then watch the news, then I’ll wash the dishes. After this, I go and check the house for cutlery, clothes and food she has stashed away in odd places, and clean up any issues or mess.”

“Before I leave, I’ll check that the windows are shut, then go home around 8.30 – 9pm, do my own chores, and go to bed around 10 – 11pm. I wake up at 5.30am for work, but on the weekends I stay in bed until 6.30am.”

At weekends, Andy goes to the local cafe to get takeaway coffees and fruit pies to take to his Mum’s place.

“I’ll try and persuade her to change out of her old clothes into something clean. Then I’ll go to Bunnings – she has a garden so I get potted flowers and vege seedlings to replace any that have died, and to buy anything else that’s broken and needs replacing around her house.”

As well as working full-time and juggling a full-on caring role for his Mum, it turns out that Andy is a talented and respected light artist. His bold creations, made of materials such as aluminium and lights, have appeared in many places, from Art in the Dark events to outdoor sculpture parks.

Given his huge daily commitments for his Mum, what support does Andy have for himself?

“To be honest, in the early years following Mum’s diagnosis, for a fleeting moment I thought of taking my life. I called my brother in the UK and we talked about it. He has been a massive support. I’m so much better now, but it is hard.”

“Sometimes I’ll catch up with a friend, and I joined a Facebook carers group. They’re UK based – I didn’t want to join a local equivalent, as sometimes my feelings get a bit too raw so I wanted that distance. Also, my Mum is a very private person so a local group would identify us too easily.”

“One thing I am very grateful for is a solid group of friends who keep an eye on me and support whenever they can.”

Despite the challenges, Andy is glad to be able to be there for his Mum.

“I see it as a gift.”

Carers NZ congratulates his employer for going the extra mile, stretching its leave policies to give extra flexibility to make it possible for Andy to keep working and earning. In our ageing population, such measures will allow carers like Andy to stay in work, contribute their experience and skills as valued long-time employees … and help older people like his Mum keep living at home.

Story by Angelique Kasmara