Content warning: this article discusses suicidal feelings
Last month we drove out to Parkes to catch up with Jennelle Tomlinson. Jennelle cares for her husband, David, and her mother, Pamela, an arrangement that leaves her with little time or energy for herself. Despite these challenges, Jennelle remains remarkably positive, happy to share a laugh, and grateful for the good things in her life.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Even before David’s accident, life hadn’t been easy, and Jennelle had faced down her own personal demons.
Jennelle says, “Before David’s accident I was in a pretty bad place. I had contemplated suicide… but I got help.”
Then in March 2013 David fell off a grain silo. He wasn’t expected to live. There were significant physical injuries, but it was the five brain bleeds that caused the most damage.
It was around this time that Jennelle discovered the Rhonda Byrne self -help tome, The Secret.
“That’s what helped to get me through the months in Sydney and the fear of bringing him home. That book, and the exercises in there, changed my head – just totally. That’s where a lot of the gratitude comes from.”
Before the accident Jennelle and David ran a sheep farm, but after the accident it became too hard, and they downsized to a small acreage on the edge of town.
Of David, she says “Some days he’s really good. Some days he’s not. He can’t bend well because his back is all pinned. But the brain damage is the hardest. He’s forgetful. It’s a bit like he has dementia.”
Around this time Jennelle started work as a cleaner down in the mine, a job she grew to love.
“I never ever thought I would be a cleaner, but I actually loved it. I always felt that it [underground] was a really calm place. I met some lovely people…I used to tell them it was my sanity, which it was because I had different people to talk to, different things to see… interesting things.”
In January 2020, just before COVID hit our shores, Pamela, 89, moved in with Jennelle and David, and Jennelle gave up her much-loved job to care for her.
“I think it’s hard having two people to care for and not getting time away. I don’t get to go and sit and have coffee with my friends, or see them, because mum really just likes me to stay home…she hates me to even be outside.”
Jennelle heard about Carer Gateway through her mother’s Home Care provider. Carer Gateway helped organise some respite care for her mum, which allowed Jennelle to take a well-earned holiday.
“Carer Gateway were just brilliant. The respite was really good. I hope that mum will go again. Even if it’s only for a weekend or a few days – just so I can recharge. Have a bit of time away.”
Taking Back Control
Something that Jennelle has begun to understand on her caring journey is the importance of self-care.
“I’m working at it [self-care] because I know if I don’t look after me, I can’t look after them. I’ve joined a really good group called Intuitive Souls. It’s a group of women that help women. It’s a very supportive group. They teach you to value yourself.”
Jennelle also decided to start her own craft group.
“I decided to have Monday Craft Day. A couple of friends come along, and we go out to my craft room. Mum can come join if she wants…. and really, it doesn’t matter if we don’t get much craft done…it’s about the chat.”
The Best Thing
“At the end of the day I can look back and say I did my best. I helped both of them in different ways. We do have laughs – and I’m learning to know my mother.”
The Hardest Thing
“The relentlessness of it. The fact that you don’t get choices anymore. I think that’s the thing that I find hardest -I don’t have choices.
But it’s not forever!”
What Keeps you Going?
“I don’t have a choice. I think that’s it. If you stopped to think about it, I don’t think you could do it. You just get up and you go. You do what you know you’ve got to do.”
Hopes and Dreams
(Laughing) “When I’m a widowed orphan I’m moving to Bundaberg.”
“Find as many positives as you can in every day.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a positive to do with the person you’re caring for. The fact that you’ve got a sunny day. You look out the window and there’s a pretty flower. Whatever – it’s a positive. And be grateful. Just be grateful that we live where we live. There is so much to be grateful for.”
If you’re one of Australia’s 2.7 million unpaid carers, you can access practical advice and support by contacting Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737.
Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.