George Abenoja greets friends, old and new, with a bright smile and happy demeanor. He describes his life before his diagnosis as ‘very colorful’. At the age of 21, George attained Australian Citizenship and was building a career in IT. He was balancing his job- working for a transport company with the continuation of his studies, and he always found time for friends.
Never afraid of a challenge, George moved to the United States for a new business venture, and when his opportunity didn’t come to fruition, he returned to Australia. This was a difficult time and was ultimately the catalyst for a significant career change.
Deciding he no longer wanted to work in IT, George began a new career chapter as a personal carer. George thoroughly enjoyed this work, which is symbolic of his giving nature.
When he was aged 38, George’s health began to decline out of the blue. Initially doctors struggled to find an explanation for the deterioration in George’s health and it seems that a diagnosis was unlikely despite a year of medical tests and painful procedures.
Not satisfied with such a vague outcome, George and his family pushed for further tests and after another 12 months George was told he had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). This diagnosis was later reviewed by other specialists and another year later George was told that MS was an unlikely cause of his of his rapidly declining health – sadly, with no known cause, there was no known cure or prognosis.
Devastated, George was back to square one; he had nothing more concrete than the knowledge that his serious illness was neurological, degenerative and progressive. George also discovered that without a doctor’s specific diagnosis for his illness, many disability service providers could not accept him as a client to provide him with adequate services to live at home.
George’s sister, Mila, resigned from her full-time job and became George’s advocate. When the doctors told George there wasn’t a cure for his medical condition, George and Mila went to the Philippines to explore alternative treatments.
George’s family rallied and continued to care for George at home, with some showering help from the Council’s Home Care Services. By this stage George was in a wheelchair and had difficulty swallowing, remembering details, hearing and speaking. He also needed to be driven to hospital check ups at least three times a week.
As George’s illness progressed, he frequently collapsed and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit several times. The gap between what George’s family could provide and his increasing care needs reached crisis point.
Three years ago, George was admitted straight from hospital to a nursing home. Like many who are forced to live in nursing homes, George found it difficult to relate to the other residents who were significantly older and often suffered from dementia. The nickname bestowed on George in the nursing home was ‘Daddy’, ironic given he was significantly younger than his fellow residents. George describes his time in the nursing home as depressing being continually confronted by death, and the end-of-life scenarios that plagued his thoughts. The fact that George attempted to act on these thoughts is indicative of the darkness that encompassed him.
For sixteen long months George barely existed in the nursing home. George’s family never gave up hope for a better outcome for him. By virtue of Mila’s strong advocacy, battling weekly with Government departments, George was offered a place in a community shared supported accommodation. He has been in his new home for nearly two years now and the difference is remarkable. George’s days are active and he has resurrected his IT skills.
Today, with Mila’s support, and the dedicated care of the house staff at George’s home, George is focusing on reestablishing his health and social independence. George and Mila are aware of the cultural and social barriers around disability that must be overcome in their community and it is their shared vision to encourage greater acceptance. George and Mila have chosen to find a positive path in their challenging journey, driving change, looking forward and creating a better world for those who will follow.
For George, the next goal is a trip back to the Philippines to visit his best friend. (Editor’s note: On 25 July 2014, Mila Cichello, George’s carer, was part of a four-member panel for a seminar series on ageing, titled “Caregiving: What’s it like? What helps”. The seminar was held at Swinburne University. The other panel members were: Mark Silver, Judith Walker and Dawn Trainor. The Gellibrand Support Services (http://www.gellibrand.org.au/) is now providing care and supported housing for George.)
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