Why so serious: Comedian tackles issue close to home
"THE practicalities can be a bit of a shitfight, to be frank," says trailblazing darling of Australian comedy Jean Kittson about looking after her ageing parents.
Kittson, 64, has never been one to shy away from confronting topics, and so has written a book to help others in the same boat.
From her own experience caring for parents, Elaine, 95, and Roy, 92, she has produced a practical guide titled We Need to Talk About Mum & Dad.
Her book cuts through the bog of aged care legalese and government jargon and offers clear advice on common issues and dilemmas.
It acknowledges supporting ageing parents and all that comes with this - new living arrangements, legal documents, medical directives, government benefits and endless form filling - is confronting stuff.
For the emotionally drained sons and daughters making big-impact decisions about their mums and dads, it's often all slathered with a colossal dose of guilt and regret.
Kittson has also interviewed "dozens and dozens" of experts in the fields of medicine, finance and aged care and presents it all with trademark humour.
This book, she writes, is an attempt to reduce the levels of tension and heighten the levels of competence.
In other words, to "lower the levels of WTF (what the f--k) and raise the levels of WTD (what to do)". Speaking from her home in Sydney, Kittson says she wanted to help her parents have "as good a life as possible".
"You want to always make the right decision," she says.
"You are tackling things like when to move them out of the family home, not leaving it too late to access home care, making decisions in hospital emergency departments, and just what questions to ask.
"I found it very difficult to get to the bottom of making the right decisions.
And you feel if you don't make the right decision, the repercussions of making the wrong decision will cause a lot of grief. You feel like there's a lot at stake.
"A lot of people I interviewed still had enormous grief about what happened to their parents who had died 10 years earlier.
"Sometimes their parents had ended up in nursing homes where they couldn't get the best care for them … they didn't know how to change the situation so they had grief and guilt over that."
This is Kittson's second research-based book, following her menopause guide, You're Still Hot to Me in 2014. She is also the author of Tongue Lashing (1998) a collection of her published articles and comedy monologues.
Kittson, one of Australia's best known comedians and personalities, has worked across stage, television, theatre, film and radio.
Born in rural Lilydale, in the Yarra Valley, Kittson has younger siblings, a sister Rachel Gairdner, 62, and brother Bill Kittson, 60. (In terms of looking after their parents, Kittson says Rachel, a social worker, is the family's CFO or Chief Family Officer, Bill is a fly-in-fly-out and Kittson is the WTF, the Walkie Talkie Family member.) Kittson says the arts "weren't considered a job" in her family, where her mum was a business administrator (and feminist) and her dad a mechanic.
"It was like aspiring to be shorter or taller or French. It seemed to be out of the question," she says.
Kittson graduated from teachers college after majoring in drama, dance and media but for reasons "partly to do with losing a whole class in the Little Desert of the Mallee region" she only lasted one year.
By the time she started working in comedy she had tried "dozens of jobs" from cleaning to pumping petrol to selling illuminated signs door to door.
Kittson finally rose to national attention in the 1980s and 1990s on sketch comedy series The Big Gig and as Nurse Pam Sandwich on the classic spoof soap opera Let the Blood Run Free (along with Brian Nankervis as Dr Ray Good, Peter Rowsthorn as Warren Cronkshonk/Bill Schwarzenhameneggenberger and Lynda Gibson as Matron Dorothy Conniving-Bitch).
In 1992, she starred in Australia's first female-only sketch comedy program Kittson Fahey with Mary-Anne Fahey.
Television appearances have been many, including Good News Week, The Glass House, Flat Chat, The Einstein Factor and World Series Debating, with film roles in Hating Alison Ashley and The Nugget.
She has performed three one-woman plays (Blue Vinyl, Bedlam and Escape), been a regular newspaper columnist and former breakfast radio host on MIX 106.5.
She is currently a regular on ABC radio Sydney drive program Thank God It's Friday! with Richard Glover and, in October, she will star in a play titled Wild Thing at Flight Path Theatre in Marrickville, in Sydney's inner west.
But Kittson now mostly makes her living on the national public speaking circuit and is a regular Master of Ceremonies at events and conferences.
She is also patron of Palliative Care Nurses Australia and ambassador for Macular Disease Foundation Australia, the Australian Gynaecological Cancer Foundation, the Raise Foundation (a program that mentors young people) and Taldumande Youth Services (that provides housing and support for homeless young people).
As the MC at palliative care conferences in 2011 and 2013, Kittson realised she had not spoken to her parents, who were then aged around their mid-80s, about many of the issues raised at the events she was hosting.
And so began her own experience in delving into the next stage of her parents' life.
She soon learnt, "it is a frigging jungle out there in the world of ageing".
Her parents, who now live independently in a retirement village in Gosford, on the NSW central coast, each face medical issues.
"Mum is legally blind and quite deaf and had a stroke about six years ago. Dad is losing more and more of his sight and he broke his femur two years ago," Kittson says.
"But together, with three days a week help, they are managing.
"What I've learnt, for my own life, is that mobility is usually a very big thing. I live in a house with four flights of stairs … it makes you think about your own future too."
Kittson has been married to cartoonist and political satirist Patrick Cook for 27 years (who illustrated cartoons throughout the book) and they have two daughters Victoria, 28, and Charlie, 21.
She says she is unashamedly open with her daughters about the future.
"I really wrote this book for my daughters," she says.
"Society doesn't really talk about end of life. There is a lot of silence around these really important discussions.
"But I'm always talking about ageing and death and dying until my daughters go, 'Mum, please, we get it. Can we just watch Married at First Sight?'"
Kittson started the book in 2016 and admits it was "like the worst homework of my life".
"I nearly gave up a couple of times. It was a massive assignment. I never thought I would finish it actually," she says. "I haven't tried to answer all the questions but I've tried to steer people in the right direction and to raise the questions they need to know as they become parents of their parents."
Kittson says the book is more relevant than ever, as the current generation of elderly is living well into their 80s and 90s and requiring care from younger generations.
"But underneath, it's a book about us all ageing," she says.
"After all, our elderly are the people who will be us in the blink of an eye."
We Need To Talk About Mum & Dad, Jean Kittson, MacMillan Australia, $35