When they don’t leave

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There are some patients you just never forget. Nursing offers a unique insight into other people’s lives – indeed what other job is so intrusive of the personal and familial.

Marge was probably in her early eighties. The elderly woman spent many weeks in the intensive care ward recovering from open-heart surgery, and day after day her middle- aged sons sat grim-faced and silently by her bed. It was always just the two men who arrived and left together still in work boots and wearing backpacks. There were never any partners or children visiting Marge.

I was curious about these dutiful sons and one morning over her wash, I asked Marge to tell me about her two sons. “They never left home, nurse”, she said. “Once they finished school they were out working but they’ve always lived at home,” she sighed. “I make their dinner and clean up after them just as I did when they were little.” “Don’t know what they’ll do when I’m gone though.”

Widowed in her early forties Marge had been left to raise the boys on her own and like most mothers she hoped her boys would make their own lives, get married, raise a family – but this had not happened. Instead she worried herself sick over how they would manage as she was clearly losing her grip on life. I felt very sorry for Marge and her sons for none of them had really been able to move on in life. I remember thinking that unlike the situation today, it was unusual for men of that era not to have married with the average age for marrying during the more prosperous post war years at around 23 years of age.

Then there was another patient Moira who was brought into the emergency department, gravely ill. Yes, her physical illness was real enough, but it was her emotional state that was in real turmoil. Over the paper work she confided in me, telling me that her abusive daughter had just moved back into the family home. And it wasn’t the first time that the mother of three had sought refuge from her violent partner. But this time she brought her three young children with her.  Poor Moira!

Years later those meaningful events and conversations held around the bedside have often caused me to reflect on my own life and the social changes occurring all around us.

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Over the recent decades there has been a definite trend away from marriage with those who do so marrying later in life. Today nearly a quarter of Australians aged 20-34, more commonly men, are still living in multigenerational households, the highest level since the 1950s. Of those aged 25-29 living in the parental home, more than half have moved out and returned. This is a global trend occurring in countries such as Japan, where the three million young adults still living with their parents are referred to as ‘parasite singles’ and in the USA where the ‘baby gloomers’ the 29 per cent of 25- to 34-year olds have either never moved out of the family home or have returned because of the adverse economy.

It’s not just the lack of jobs that is causing young adults to return home. Recently my employer told me about his own dilemma. His daughter, a qualified and employed teacher had just moved back home after a relationship breakup much to the annoyance of her mother. “I agreed to her coming home,” said Peter. “Julie was furious, she’s had enough of kids landing on us and besides we’re near retirement and it’s the last thing we need. We’re fighting all the time.”

I share the problem of grown children returning home but knowing that I am not alone doesn’t make it any easier. My son Ben is a repeat offender and is living with me again after I received a call out of the blue (I had barely heard from him in over a year). “Can you put me up for a while?” Then the guilt trip: “I’ll be sleeping on the streets tonight if you don’t.” “Don’t let him stay again”, warned his sister Mia who barely tolerated her brother and had seen me struggle with him before. For this wasn’t the first time that he’d run out of options, used up all his savings, couldn’t find a job and had nowhere to live.

When Ben returned home the first time it was after he’d been away for seven years. During this time there’d been no contact between us with all efforts to find him proving futile. I had almost given up ever seeing my son again. Then one day, I received a phone call from a New Zealand hospital where he’d been admitted with depression. He wanted to come home and so a week later I was at the airport to meet my son.

I remember arriving at the airport well ahead of time and trying in vain to calm my rapid heartbeat as I waited for his plane to land. Then as every tall, dark and handsome young man exited the plane I searched for some sign of recognition. None came. Where was he? Had he changed his mind and not come home? Was the thought of the family reunion too much for him to bear?

I proceeded to the luggage carousel and watched the weary travelers welcome the arrival of their personal effects, gather them up and leave. I stood alone and pondered my next mode of action and decided to check outside. Maybe he was waiting for me there.

His deep, dark brown eyes caught sight of me. Although balding and rather thin he was still very handsome. I gave him a hug and we went home and tried as best we could to mend the rift in all our lives. For the next few years he settled down, found an office job and kept in communication with his immediate family. But the travelling bug got to him once more and the next time I heard from him he was living in the UK, having given up his job along with all his belongings.

So now he is back with me for another stint having used up his funds travelling the world and but for his mother he may well be sleeping rough. I am once again the rock upon which my son depends. This time our relationship is not so fractious; my resentment not so deep and he is helping with maintenance of my tired old house. I may just have to get used to having a housemate for so far he hasn’t landed a job. They are hard to find in the post GFC world. It seems austerity is the order of the day and what happens to the unemployed destined to become a private matter.

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