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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

When your mother-in-law is Everybody’s Oma – Megan Van Genderen on surviving as a carer

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After a successful launch at the Sydney International Film Festival in June, documentary film Everybody’s Oma has begun to captivate hearts nation-wide as the film roll outs in cinemas across the country.

Everybody’s Oma follows the heart-warming story of a NSW Central Coast mother and grandmother, Hendrika van Genderen, who became a global sensation during the pandemic based on Facebook shared family home videos that followed her experiences living with dementia.

Off the back of an insightful interview with Oma’s son Jason Van Genderen in June, Aged Care News spoke to Oma’s daughter-in-law and registered nutritionist, Megan Van Genderen, about what she learned along the way as a carer for Oma, as well as her plans to continue advocacy work on behalf of the 2.65 million unpaid carers nationwide.

The unique experience of a female carer

A mother to two young children aged six and two years old, and step-mum to Jason’s teenage son, Van Genderen is quite familiar with the hard work needed to hold together a family unit.

“Being a carer on top of being a mum and stepmum was not something that I anticipated was going to happen,” she says with a warm laugh.

Acknowledging the pressure women feel to take on the majority of unpaid care work, Van Genderen says she encourages partners to equally collaborate in providing care, as well as for individual carers to develop strong support networks around them.

Whether or not we’re a daughter or a wife, or a sister or a mother or whatever we are, we also need to do something else, and be something else, beyond a carer… Because if you don’t take a little bit of time for self-care, then you’re not going to be at your best, which can make the whole situation a lot more frustrating for everyone.

Megan Van Genderen

“It kind of defaults on the female for some reason … but we really need to be unafraid to ask for help, and asking for help earlier when we’re in a crisis mode,” she notes.

“We need to engage health and social supports around us so that we can remain the best people we can be.

“Surround yourself with people that you feel comfortable having a bit of a whinge to when things are getting tough, and people that are not afraid to come to you and say ‘Oh my God, you look like hell — are you OK?’.

“It’s really important to have really honest, reliable people around you.”

During the inevitable tough times that come with being a carer, Megan Van Genderen says that having an honest, reliable support network is vital, as is finding time for moments of private, self-care. Photo: still from Everybody’s Oma (2022)

Especially important, Van Genderen says, is the need for women to balance their care giver duties with other aspects of their identity, such as career and personal hobbies.

“Whether or not we’re a daughter or a wife, or a sister or a mother or whatever we are, we also need to do something else, and be something else, beyond a carer — even though it’s in our natures.

“Because if you don’t take a little bit of time for self-care, then you’re not going to be at your best, which can make the whole situation a lot more frustrating for everyone.”

Van Genderen says that taking walks alone, at the break of dawn, was a valuable means of self-care.  

“To start walking at quarter to six, before the sun was even out and before any child was up, to have half an hour to myself that no one was actually saying anything to me, it just kind of prepared myself for the rest of the day.”

Creative compromises and familial teamwork

Megan and Jason Van Genderen both cared for Oma full-time during the pandemic, limiting their work hours to late night bursts on their laptops, after Oma and the kids were put to bed.

To start walking at quarter to six, before the sun was even out and before any child was up, to have half an hour to myself that no one was actually saying anything to me, it just kind of prepared myself for the rest of the day.

Megan Van Genderen

“It meant that we could care for an elderly person living with us full-time, because we could be really flexible … but working at nights did mean we were quite burnt out.

“And we are aware that it’s not possible for everyone to be so flexible in their careers.”

More universally applicable, however, is the extent to which Megan and Jason have made a concerted effort to share the caring load, to pool their strengths and contribute equally in a true partnership.

“The best part was, honestly, discovering how we all, as a family, could really band together and unify to look after Oma,” Van Genderen says.

It was a united front that encouraged their children, Artie, 6, and Evie, 2, to explore providing their own unique methods of caring for and supporting their grandmother, even as her condition progressed.

“We just had this unspoken little universal handshake — that we’re just going to lock in and make sure we did whatever we could to help.

“In that regard, it was beautiful watching our whole family just kind of melt into Oma and make sure that she was OK.”

The whole Van Genderen family banded together to provide the most loving and supportive environment possible for Oma, easing the psychological pressures that come with a full-time caring role.

Clinical skillset put to the test

Oma began to experience dysphagia, difficulty with swallowing and eating, in early 2021.

Van Genderen says that her expertise as a nutritionist helped her a lot, preparing meals of the appropriate texture and nutritional profile to maintain Oma’s wellbeing.

However, providing the best possible experience for Oma went beyond balancing macronutrients and counting calories.

What helped, more than anything, was listening to Oma, tuning into the time and place that her dominant memories were transporting her, and situating her meals around that.

“I fought so hard to be able to maintain her routines around food and the ceremony around food that she always had,” Van Genderen says.

“She was transcending into a part of her dementia where she thought she was a teenager all of the time … so I began to ask her ‘what are you cooking with mum tonight?’.

“And so I started to create a lot of flavours and meals that were dysphasia friendly around the things that she used to cook and enjoy with her mum.

“The smells and the way the food looked brought back memories of the teenage self that she was very comfortable with.

“It meant that when she was eating that meal, that she would talk to us about her mum; she was really happy; and, because she was conversing a lot, it meant that there was no risk of choking and it would aid her digestion because she was slowing down a lot of her eating.

“We would find that she would actually eat more than she used to and she was just generally a lot happier.”

Megan Van Genderen, a registered nutritionist, planned Oma’s meals so that they were soft and safe for her to eat in her later stages of dementia, whilst also being compatible with her native Dutch culture and the earlier memories she kept.

Plans for ongoing carer advocacy

Van Genderen hopes that Oma’s legacy will continue long into the future, and she plans to use her experiences to develop a range of new resources for older persons and their carers.

The first is wELDERbeing, fostering new and proactive approaches to ageing.

“wELDERbeing is a platform I would really like to grow by creating resources that foster wellbeing for our older Australians, but in an empowering, independent kind of way,” she says.

“So, for example, providing avenues around movement, socialisation and nutrition, so that our older Australians can feel confident in leading an independent life for as long as they possibly can, at home.”

When you’re a carer, you’re very selfless and you really think about yourself last, but by maintaining some sort of self-care routine means that you’re going to be a much better and more sustainable carer.

Megan Van Genderen

Secondly, Van Genderen hopes to develop what she will call a ‘Carer Empowerment Program’.

“It will really be a reflection of some of the things I probably should have done as a carer, all about leaning in to your own feelings, making sure you are OK, checking in with yourself in terms of boundaries and having a few self-care tools up your sleeve.

“You don’t have a lot of time to yourself, but it’s so important to just have those couple of little things that you can do to keep yourself as healthy as possible.

“When you’re a carer, you’re very selfless and you really think about yourself last, but by maintaining some sort of self-care routine means that you’re going to be a much better and more sustainable carer.”

More about the screenings of Everybody’s Oma

Everybody’s Oma will be featured as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival this weekend, and early next week, and in Hobart, Adelaide and Perth throughout next week.

To view the screening dates and times and to book tickets, follow this link.

In memory of Oma, who sadly lost her battle with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia in February, the family will leave a front row seat free at each screening.

You can read more about the film, as well as Oma’s son Jason Van Genderen’s caring experience, via this link.

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