Wendyl Nissen opens up about giving up radio to care for her parents

''I wanted to be able to look back and say, 'I had some really good times with my parents and I made their lives easier', rather than, 'I did a radio show'.''

Wendyl Nissen has never had any qualms about closing the door on a part of her life and moving on to something else. The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly columnist likes challenges and has reinvented herself many times throughout her career, going from newspaper reporter to magazine editor to TV producer, media personality, author, businesswoman and, most recently, radio host. It seems like there’s nothing she won’t try.

In her latest move, she has decided to step down from her role hosting The Long Lunch radio show on RadioLIVE, almost 18 months after she started. But it’s not a case of been there, done that.

This time, she is giving up her job to spend more time with her parents, Cedric and Elis, who have moved in with Wendyl and her writer husband Paul Little at their Hokianga home.

“My parents are both in their mid-80s and my mum has early Alzheimer’s, so Dad is basically her full-time carer,” explains our Green Goddess columnist. “They were living in their own home in Auckland and Dad was doing everything – the cooking, cleaning, washing. He was coping, but I just felt there should be someone there for him when he did need it, someone to give him a bit of respite.”

Wendyl and Paul have a guest cottage next to their home, which is set in a picturesque spot looking out over the Hokianga Harbour, and they realised it made sense for Cedric (86) and Elis (85) to move in there.

“When we told people that Mum and Dad were selling their home and coming up here to us everyone said, ‘Oh, you’re mad having your parents living with you.’ Not one person said, ‘What a good idea,’ or ‘Oh, that’s great, you’ll love having them with you’.

“So I did have a few moments of thinking, ‘Are we mad? Is this the right thing to do? How is it going to impact on our lives?’ But actually, it has turned out to be absolutely wonderful. It’s so nice to have them around, and it’s actually fun.”

There’s been a period of adjustment, admits Wendyl (56), who hasn’t lived with her parents since she left home at 17.

“It takes a bit of getting used to. Dad is great; it’s like having a caretaker on the property. At the moment he is building me some nesting boxes for my chickens.

“When he needs a bit of a break from looking after Mum, I take her out for long drives in the country. It gets her out and we have the best time yakking away. She forgets everything five minutes later, but that’s okay. You just have to be patient and remember that she can’t help it. You get used to repeating yourself and doing the best you can.”

While she’s been pleased to have her folks with her, Wendyl found it hard to leave them for two weeks of every month when she went to Auckland to broadcast her three-hour weekday show from the RadioLIVE studio. (The rest of the time she does the show from a studio set up in her home).

“I didn’t like being away from them and I felt like I needed to be here more. Mum has diabetes as well as Alzheimer’s and has a lot of medical appointments. I wanted to be able to help Dad out more. So I had to make a decision.

“I could’ve decided to do the radio show for a few years more and be able to say,’I had this great broadcasting career’. Or I could spend the next few years with my folks.”

“It was a no-brainer really. I wanted to be able to look back and say, ‘I had some really good times with my parents and I made their lives easier’, rather than, ‘I did a radio show’.”

Don’t get her wrong, she’s loved doing The Long Lunch, a magazine-style show she will finish hosting on October 12.

“For me, radio was really the last thing on my list of things I have always wanted to do and I am glad I can tick it off. I’ve really enjoyed it, although I was very nervous about doing live radio. It’s so instant – when something has been said, it’s out there immediately.

“The first few months were my idea of living hell – live radio is a challenge that stretches your brain and your confidence. But once I got into it and started enjoying it, I stopped being nervous. Now I just rock up to the mic and away I go. If I make a mistake I laugh and move on.”

Those three hours live on air are pretty intense. On a typical day, she can do as many as 10 interviews with various people on a huge range of topics and she needs to keep her wits about her.

“Live radio is so immediate, you can’t edit it, and doing 10 interviews over three hours is real brain work. But I do love it, and I’ve become a bit of an expert on a lot of subjects. I feel like I have talked to everyone about everything, and I’m an encyclopaedia now. Or a know-it-all!”

Some of Wendyl’s favourite subjects to interview have been politicians.

“With my background in women’s mags, I became an expert at interviewing celebrities, but I didn’t get access to politicians.

“I’ve been making up for lost time – I’ve had Jacinda Ardern on a couple of times, and Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett, Auckland mayor Phil Goff… I’ve really enjoyed talking with them and having a laugh. My show is lifestyle-ish so I’m not attacking them about anything; we just chat.”

One interviewee she particularly enjoyed talking to was, surprisingly, controversial right-wing British politician Nigel Farage.

“Our politics could not be more opposite, yet we hit it off. We chatted for half an hour and he was so charming and entertaining, and sort of Winston Peters-ish. I loved the chance to talk to someone I would not normally be bothered to talk to, and to hear a completely different point of view.”

There have been lots of fun moments on air, but there have also been conversations with people who’ve endured terrible tragedies. Wendyl’s experienced at these kind of interviews, but doing them live on air can be tricky. “I spoke to the mother of a child who was killed in a shooting in the US and when you’ve got someone sharing their pain, tears and agony live on air you don’t know what they are going to come out with and you have to handle it sensitively.

“You’ve got to try to get the best response from them, but you don’t want it to seem like you are dragging out emotion for the benefit of your listeners.”

Wendyl says she has been fortunate to work with a great team at RadioLIVE, particularly her producers Dave Campbell and Linzi Dryburgh.

“They’ve really taught me about radio, those two, and we’ve become a tight team. I am going to miss them, but I know they’ll keep in touch while I’m hanging out with Mum and Dad.”

She’s planning on taking the summer off – other than writing her Green Goddess column for the Weekly – but next year will take on more work that she can mostly do from home.

“I’m not sure what at the moment, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but I’d like to go back to writing, probably for magazines and maybe some books. Writing is comfy for me; I have been doing it since I was 19 and I know I will have the energy to do that and look after my folks.”

Wendyl’s latest book The Natural Home.

The queen of green living has just put out a new book, The Natural Home. It’s a kind of compendium, with updated information from her four previous books.

Her first book on the subject of natural living, Domestic Goddess on a Budget, was published nine years ago after Wendyl had an epiphany about the importance of getting rid of chemicals and preservatives and trying to live a simple life.

“When I had this realisation of, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to live more like our nanas and be greener and healthier’, I thought everyone would come onboard. But they haven’t really.I think people do want to make changes but they find it hard, so books like this are still relevant.”

She admits to being more relaxed though when it comes to spreading her message.

“When I started I would lecture people about it and tell them, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ I’m a bit more laid-back now.

“A while ago I walked into my house in Auckland to find my 20-year-old daughter Pearl using a supermarket spray – I could smell the chemicals. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ But then I thought, ‘Well, it’s your choice’.

“Everyone’s free to make a choice about what they put into their homes and their bodies, but at least if they know about the alternatives to products with chemicals they can try them. They can have a go at my spray cleaner or my laundry liquid, and make their own minds up. I would never want to do anything else, but these days I am being a little less evangelical about it.”

Wendyl’s hoping to be more chilled out in general once she’s no longer doing the radio job. She’ll not only have more time with her parents, but her granddaughters Lila (10) and Emmie (8), who recently returned to live in New Zealand after living in Los Angeles for a few years.

She’s also looking forward to having more time to go fishing, tend to her vege garden and orchard, and relax on her verandah enjoying the sea view.

She may also find time to work on her marmalade-making skills.

“I preserve all the fruit off my trees and this year, I decided to make some marmalade for everyone at RadioLIVE. I took everyone a jar, but unfortunately it hadn’t set. I’ve been teased relentlessly about it ever since – they call me the Queen of Marmalade now.

‘”But hey, you can’t do it all and at least it tastes nice!”

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