Stuck in a nursing home at 51

Sally Blefari, whose 51-year-old sister is in a nursing home because of a lack of suitable accommodation for younger disabled people.
Sally Blefari, whose 51-year-old sister is in a nursing home because of a lack of suitable accommodation for younger disabled people.

At just 51, Poppy (not her real name*) is at least 30 years younger than her fellow nursing home residents. But, with accommodation for younger disabled people in desperately short supply, her future looks to be a life of early bedtimes and few meaningful interactions.

For the past 18 months, Poppy's sister, Hazelbrook resident Sally Blefari, has tried to weave a way through the maze of the disability system but it appears there is simply nowhere suitable for her sister to live.

Poppy had always lived a "free spirit" lifestyle, Mrs Blefari said. She ran her own business, was a chef for a time and once entered a self portrait in the Archibald.

She was a "creative, non-conventional hippie" living in lush, semi-rural surrounds in regional Queensland with her dog, Chino.

But her world turned upside down in January 2013 when the Bundaberg floods hit. Around the same time her father died.

"It was like a tsunami of physical and emotional stress with no support," said Mrs Blefari. "She was telling me she had bad headaches, she could hardly hear and communication was really challenging. Even her emails started to be illegible."

When Mrs Blefari travelled to Bundaberg to help her sister after the floods, she barely recognised her.

Poppy had developed a degenerative neurological condition. There is still no definitive diagnosis of her illness, although neurosarcoidosis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) has been suggested.

She was moved to a Brisbane hospital and eventually transferred to Katoomba. But her needs were increasing by the day as she gradually lost the ability to walk and, at times, to talk.

She needed high level care but the only place in the Mountains Mrs Blefari could find was the nursing home.

"The fact is there is an absolute lack of accommodation in the disability sector," she said.

The nursing home cannot accommodate Poppy's eclectic and creative life. Staff have described her as being "too colourful," which Mrs Blefari interprets as her sister's propensity to swear, which has become a way for her to express what she wants to say.

The formerly bright and vivacious woman now languishes in her room for much of the day.

Medications often leave her drowsy or uncommunicative. Mrs Blefari used to visit her sister weekly but admits sometimes "it's just too hard for me".

She hopes that a new weekly physiotherapy session through Dare disability services may restore some independent movement. But what Poppy needs most is to be around younger people.

"I'm confident that there are other people in the Mountains in a similar situation," she said. But she's run into roadblocks trying to find them.

Mrs Blefari contacted the Summer Foundation, a Victorian-based organisation working to address the issue of young people living in nursing homes.

Community relations manager, Carolyn Finis, said Poppy's case was all too common.

"Sadly, this story typifies the experience of the majority of the 6000-plus young people living in nursing homes in Australia. She is living without choice, surrounded by the elderly, who are at the end stages of their lives."

Mrs Blefari said life in the nursing home was very unmotivating for her sister. One day she visited her at 4pm.

"She had already been put to bed, curtains drawn and dressed in a nightie that I assume belonged to another resident at some stage."

The Gazette asked if Poppy complains about her situation. Her sister says no.

"She's given up. But when I talk about getting someone to help, she says, 'yes please, yes please, yes please'."

"I don't know what the solution is."

* Poppy has a state-appointed guardian who asked that her real name not be used.