'My wife and I have been through hell'

It happened in 1995. Martin and Margaret Forty had been busy raising their six children in Wyndham Vale in Victoria. Martin was a full-time worker, Margaret a full-time mum. But with the youngest of the kids now three, they decided it was the right time for Margaret to return to hairdressing. The milkbar down the road had an empty back room - perfect.

It was a good plan, and all was going well, until Margaret was forced to shut for the day because a child with head lice had turned up for a cut.

As she walked down the street, she was approached by a gang of youths, who surrounded her and demanded her handbag. Thinking they were only kids, Margaret, then 34, did what many of us would, she told them to “piss off”. The next second she had a knife at her throat with the threat “your money or your life”. She chose life.

Amazingly, that night, she was fine. She and Martin could even share a bit of a joke about it.  The next day was a different story. “That was Friday and I went to work on Saturday,” Martin, now 50, said. “I came home and Mags was just sitting there, with the kids playing around her, not moving. “I went over to her and asked ‘Mags, are you OK’ and touched her and she just fell on the ground, having a fit. She was conscious but that’s when she forgot how to cook, wash, how to be a mum. Her whole mind had gone.”

Martin said two months later Margaret “woke up” and thought she was still running her hairdressing business. “When I told her I had to sell, she went into depression. I got a psychologist and he said it was post-traumatic stress but then when she didn’t get any better he said it was schizophrenia. He said if I hadn’t been for the mugging it (schizophrenia) wouldn’t have made it through.”

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Martin said the next five years were “hell”. Margaret’s medication was not working – she was overdosing, drinking too much alcohol and self-harming to the point of a number of suicide attempts. At the five year mark Martin had his own breakdown and admitted his wife to an institution. Ironically, she finally received the medical help she needed. She was still “sick” but not trying to hurt herself any longer.

It was the start of a new life. Not the one they had planned, but one they could live with - a life with hope and a future. For Martin, life as a carer, has been challenging. Before their life changed, he was the bread winner. He went to work, came home for dinner, and the next day went to work again. Men earned the money. They provided the financial means to their family. That was the mark of their success. Being a carer was a new way of life which took him five years to adjust to. But he finally got it. “I realised you have to accept it – to be happy again,” he said. “You have to completely let go of the life you have and start your new life. A lot of people run away from it – but if you believe in your vows and are happy to continue life together then you just put all of the effort that you would have put into your job into your new life and your family.

“And I knew the quicker I got my act together, then the quicker everyone else would be OK. Mags, the kids. You have to let it go and be happy with what you’ve got. I am grateful that Mags is still with me, that she’s alive. I nearly lost her three times. And now we can sit and enjoy a meal together and I am not thinking ‘she’s going to hurt herself again’."

Martin said while the first five years were spent in “survival mode” things were now “as normal as they could get”. “I am also a better person. I am very close to my kids and I know that Mags and I can get through anything now. It has brought us closer together.”

Martin said while he was grateful to receive a carer’s payment from the Federal Government there were things that could be done to improve the lives of both carers and those they cared for. They included some form of superannuation for carers, a guarantee of any job should the person they care for pass away as opposed to being suddenly becoming “a dole bludger” and financial education on how to survive on a relatively modest pension compared to a decent income. Martin said information about what was available regarding services was also thin on the ground.

And his top three tips for anyone who finds themselves suddenly in a carer’s role? First and foremost, accept it. Second, go to a carers’ group to find out how people are coping and what’s available to help make life easier. And finally, “just love the person you’re caring for, without resentment, and make a life”. “You are always adapting – you get smarter,” he said. “I’m coping with everything now – we are in a good place.”

Meanwhile, tickets are still available to see some of Australia and New Zealand’s finest musicians play in a world-first 24-hour symphony concert to raise awareness for carers—the Impossible Orchestra. Held at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall this weekend, October 27 and 28, the world-first orchestral event will raise awareness of the 2.6 million unpaid family carers in Australia as part of the national Care Aware campaign.

Free and open to all, but with registration essential, the event is led by Australian conductor Brett Kelly and will feature more than 270 of Australia and New Zealand’s musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, the Australian National Academy of Music and others. The musical event will also be webcast in real time from the Care Aware website.

The Impossible Orchestra will endeavour to play continuously for 24 hours, a feat never before attempted, to raise awareness of carers who provide unpaid full or part-time care to people of all ages with disabilities, medical conditions, mental illness, who are frail aged or who have alcohol and drug issues.  Recognising the performers will need a break over the 24-hour period, high profile Australians including Charlie Pickering, Josh Thomas, Tracy Bartram and Francis Greenslade will step in to help.

Carers Australia chief executive officer Ara Cresswell said carers were the cornerstone of Australia’s mental health care, aged care, disability and palliative care systems. 

Register for The Impossible Orchestra at http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au or call 1300 182 183. 

For information on the Care Aware campaign visit http://www.careaware.com.au

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