Last night on 60 Minutes, reporter Liz Hayes exposed the shameful truth that has left many elderly Australians in crisis. In particular, 63-year-old Yvette Nichol.
For 33 years, Yvette did her very best to raise and be the full-time carer for her intellectually disabled son.
But as they both got older, life got harder. Yvette’s marriage fell apart and her son’s condition worsened. But hardest of all, Yvette was tortured by her concerns of what would happen to her son when she died. Who would care for him and where would he live?
Then last year, pushed to breaking point, Yvette did the unthinkable. She tried to kill herself and her son.
“When an elderly mother devotes her entire life to her disabled child, fights for every fibre of his being, and then decides she and therefore he can’t go on, it raises some serious question,” says Hayes.
“And when my producer Sean Power and I sought answers to those questions we found a terrible truth.”
In May last year, after her son had suffered a week of night terrors and Yvette had little to no sleep, she made a call to her son’s National Disability Insurance Scheme co-ordinator. Her call went unanswered.
Yvette told 60 Minutes it was in this moment that she gave up. She “couldn’t watch him suffer anymore.”
Yvette cleaned the house, wrote notes to her family members, selected songs for their funerals. But thankfully, Yvette woke up before it was too late.
“Yvette Nichol’s story is the extreme,” says Hayes, “but not a unique example of what happens when a parent feels isolated, alone and all out of fight.”
“Sitting down with Yvette was tough. A mother who had pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of her disabled son telling me why her life had arrived at this terrible place,” says Hayes.
“She spoke with a voice that was barely audible, such is the terrible shame and guilt she feels.”
“But Yvette, I believe, is strong and brave. She knows not everyone will understand, but she also knows there are plenty who will, and it’s for them she wanted her story to be told. To tell them that there is another way.”
As Hayes exposed, Yvette’s crisis is not an isolated one.
Elderly parents are being driven to the brink because of a national shortage of accommodation for their disabled children.
Shockingly, 90-year-old Wilf Alcock and his 88-year-old wife, Faye have been fighting to secure support for their son, Rodney for decades.
Nearly 20 years ago the Alcocks campaigned for appropriate accommodation for children like Rodney, asking the same tragic question as Yvette. Twenty years on, they told Hayes nothing has changed.
“Wilf and Faye are extraordinary parents,” says Hayes.
“Watching them pay such particular attention to their 60-year-old son Rodney is both heartwarming and heartwrenching.”
“This is their only child and they love him beyond words. But finding him a home where they know he will be cared for in the way they care for him has been an extraordinary challenge. How they’ve carried on all these years is beyond me.”
By 2020 – in just two years’ time – it is projected that half a million Australians with a disability will still be living at home. More than 32,000 of those will be children over the age of 45, many with parents in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.
All of the parents featured in Hayes’ investigation have been in a challenging situation since their children were born, but equally put their own lives aside to devote their time to caring for their disabled daughters and sons – never believing it was anyone else’s job.
But as Hayes reflects: “When faced with the cold truth that they will die, these parents have found the options available to their children are limited. Finding new homes and preparing their children to live without them is not easily done.”
“None of these parents want pity. They want help. They want to help set the future for their children; a future with dignity and respect, of love and happiness, when their parents are gone.”
Federal Minister for Social Services, Dan Tehan admitted to Hayes that the National Disability Scheme failed Yvette Nichol and is family many other families like her. But he insisted there is change around the corner for these parents – and with change, hope.
“Federal Social Services Minister Dan Tehan agreed with me that these are elderly parents running out of time, whose needs must be addressed,” says Hayes.
“The National Disability Insurance Scheme is aimed at providing solutions. But elderly parents, often lacking computer skills and nearly always too exhausted, aren’t able to easily navigate the system. To many it’s been a frustrating time.”
“Which brings me to a group of elderly parents in Bendigo who’ve decided to take matters into their own hands. They’ve banded together to try and build the accommodation their children need. They’re trying to raise the $6 million to build a group of homes interlocked with courtyards and open spaces … a place where interaction and community participation is encouraged. It is a vision that keeps them going.”
The stories of Yvette, Wilf and Faye are incredibly tragic. And incredibly difficult for these families to tell.
Wilf and Faye believe they’re “just about ready to die” and have to idea what will happen to their boy. After 20 years of demanding answers and pleading for support, they worry every single day about the prospect of leaving Rodney behind.
Yvette pleaded guilty to attempted murder of her son, but instead of incarceration the court chose compassion and placed her on a community corrections order. Despite avoiding jail time, Yvette isn’t sure if she will ever escape her feelings of shame and enormous guilt.
“These are elderly people and they feel forgotten,” says Hayes.
“They usually don’t make much noise, because they’re too busy and too tired. When we asked these parents to tell their stories they were desperate to be heard. And they had plenty to say.”