Closing Time: The Premature Closing of St. Joseph’s Home and Some Comparisons

I am painfully behind on blog posts. It seems to be a chronic problem that has been exasperated by my South African life. But a person should never begin a public speech–or a blog post– with an apology. And so, in leu of an apology, I will offer a brief explanation. T.I.A, folks, and wifi is very hard for me to comeby.This blog is gasping for wifi… And the wifi I am using now is slower than slow.

An overwhelming amount of exciting and eye opening things have happened over the past month and it would be impossible for me to convey all of those experiences and the gratitude I feel for the many South Africans that have helped me along this journey. I recently received word that an Alzheimer’s Home that I lived at for two weeks is in the process of shutting down. Because that news is still hot off the press and fresh on my mind, I am going to start with the St. Joseph’s Home.

I arrived at the Alzheimer’s home in Port Elizabeth on the verge of tears. I had just managed a brief escape from a very unfortunate lodging/researching arrangement and was dreading my impending tango with the city’s very unsafe public transport system back to said place. For those of you who don’t know, I was raised a Catholic. I was taught to always look for signs and I’ve done my fair share of praying. And, my dear flans, I took the fact that I was standing in a Catholic Alzheimer’s Home that shares the same name of my high school as a good sign. And boy, was it ever! My experience in PE quickly changed from one of the worst of my trip to one of the best thanks to the overwhelming kindness and hospitality displayed by Nicola, the receptionist, and Judy, the general manager.

Nicola took care of my transportation back to the place that shall not be named and Judy welcomed me the next day (thanks to the suggestion of Nicola) with news that I could stay at the home for free for two weeks. I think I got goosebumps. I fell into the Home’s routine pretty quickly and was shocked by the ease at which I connected with most of the residents, their families, and Nicola. The news of the homes impending closure came as an unpleasant shock (especially considering it just opened its doors five months ago). And, I am grappling to find some answers.

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There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and few medicines exist to delay the inevitable mental degradation. Alzheimer’s victims and their loved one are left with very few tools to combat this degenerative disease. Establishing routines, engaging in mental and physical stimulation, and minimizing stress on the victims may help to delay cognitive decline. The St. Joseph’s Home wasn’t perfect: it had three floors when it should of had one, the carers were often negligent, the food left something to be desired. For all of its shortcomings though, it did offer an affordable and specialized center for families trapped in the Alzheimer’s crisis. The residents slowly learned that this would be their new home, that tea came at 10:30, and there were movies every Tuesday and Thursday. And, their families adjusted, as much as one can, to the new routine.

The fact that the Alzheimer’s home is closing is almost heartbreaking. I know that the move will send those residents that still have some cognitive functionality and memory over an edge. Mrs. Dominy, for example, repeated herself often and was clearly slipping but still remembered her husband, family, and could form well structured sentences. She kept telling me that I was going to do great things for people like her. She could tell because I had such a great heart. This woman brought tears to my eyes. And the sight of her with her sweetheart (they’ve been married for over sixty years) was simultaneously heartwarming and depressing. The move will not be easy on her. Or her husband.

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Then there was Yvonne and her husband Pieter. Yvonne came every day to see her husband. Most days he didn’t do much but you could tell he knew exactly who she was. And, when he saw his grandchild for the first time his face light up like a Christmas tree. Yvonne has been keeping me updated on St. Joseph’s news and her family will be on my mind and in my heart during this next move.

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It was through Yvonne that I learned of Mr. Beamish’s passing. Mr. Beamish was the sweetest man and had a smile that could melt your heart. On a few of the days, I worked with him and got him to throw the ball back and forth. He eventually came into his element and started doing little tricks. The twinkle in his eye was still there. And, his wife, Mrs. Beamish, is such a strong woman. To see your loved one go through this disease causes unspeakable pain and a tremendous amount of character is needed to make it through.

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Like I said above, the St. Joseph’s home was not perfect but moving is far from ideal and it is a real shame that the residents and their families are being subjected to this additional trauma. I wish them all the best and hope that another Alzheimer’s home, one that is more Alzheimer’s friendly, pops up in Port Elizabeth soon.

Part of the reason that I was able to view the St. Joseph’s home with such a critical eye is thanks to a woman named Margie. Margie works for a company called Geratec that specializes in person centered elder care and also provides nutritious and tasty food to the elderly. Margie is an incredibly busy and driven woman who took an entire day out of her busy schedule to show me around to different homes that Geratec works with in the Cape Town region. To say I was impressed is an understatement and to express my gratitude accurately would be an impossibility.

We started at the Huis Ina Rena in Paarl. This home was absolutely stunning on the inside and out. I walked in thought I could be happy living here. What was most impressive though was how engaged the staff was with the residents. Residents helped with the cooking, had newspapers, the gardens were beautiful, and it honestly felt like a home. There was no underlying urine smell, the food actually smelt nice, and everything was bright and airy. To be fair, the home is for residents from a privileged socioeconomic background and public homes cannot afford the same luxuries.

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Thanks to M’s thoughtfulness I was able to see the contrast between a private high end home and a public low-end home located within one of the Townships. After visiting an additional high end living in place facility in Stellenbosch, we moved on to the notorious Ekuphumleni in Gugulethu. The home services the elderly living within the township and has a legacy of elder abuse and neglect, poor hygiene, and substandard conditions. Thankfully, Geratec recently began overseeing the home and things are improving. Residents are encouraged to garden, there is communal space, rats no longer frequent the area, and the rooms finally have some privacy. It is a slow process but care at the home is shifting from being grossly negligent to person centered and commendable.

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Geratec really does an incredible job and I am excited to follow the company in years to come. I can only imagine that in a few years time Ekuphumleni will be a prime example of how you can do a lot of good with few resources, a lot of heart, and respect for the elderly.

I hate to end this post so abruptly especially since I have so much more to say buuuut I am doing a safari with my mom at the moment and it’s about time for a game drive. With any luck, I can post again tomorrow.

About tomakingitcount12

I'm a recent college graduate studying cultures of Alzheimer's care giving throughout the international community thanks to a generous fellowship from Hendrix College. My fellowship with enable me to meet with leading Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and aging professionals, attend a number of conferences, and to learn from caregivers in Ireland, Western Europe, and South Africa. My fellowship was inspired by my Auntie Mare and Grandma Louis, both of whom passed away in May of 2011 after suffering from the disease for several years.
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One Response to Closing Time: The Premature Closing of St. Joseph’s Home and Some Comparisons

  1. Susie McCoole says:

    Jen thanks for sharing, I can’t believe how brave you are, to go on this trip alone. Thanks for the updates on your trip and hope you and your Mom are have a great time!

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