The ageing process is not pretty, and especially not if you happen to be poor. Like an old car, scratches, dents, rust and peeling paint mark the passing years. There are signs that the engine is slowing down; going up hills becomes an effort. Eventually, routine maintenance no longer does the job and you’re no longer considered road-worthy. However, the final nail in the coffin, as it were, is when the mind slows to a halt.
Society doesn’t know what to do with people who can’t connect the mental dots, who exhibit bizarre behaviour or who can’t remember their children’s names. Families no longer see a beloved mother, father or grandmother with a unique personality who for many years played an important role in their lives; they simply become people who need to be cared for. The family is faced with three options: one member takes on the primary care-giving role; an outside carer is brought in, or the elderly person is placed in a Frail Care facility. Make no mistake, caring for someone living with dementia or Alzheimer’s is not an easy task, whoever undertakes it.
And Frail Care services don’t come cheap; in fact, some of them are so exorbitantly expensive that one has to wonder who can possibly afford them. Certainly not someone living on a state pension, or whose children are not super-rich. For the past 34 years, SOFCA’s Hermanus Frail Care Centre has provided a dedicated service for just such people. It can accommodate 55 residents, most of them living with dementia or Alzheimer’s; some have been there for up to 16 years.
“We make it our business”, emphasises Gayle Smith, General Manager of the centre, “to create as homely an atmosphere as possible; we like to call it a 24-hour residential home, not an institution. I’m proud to say that our 46 staff members, be they nurses, carers, cleaners, laundry assistants or cooks are incredibly dedicated – more than 80% of them have been here for longer than 15 years. It can be very hard work, both physically and emotionally, but they carry it out with love and compassion.”
Financially, it’s an uphill struggle, though. Private residents currently pay R12 140 per month, which is pretty-well the break-even cost per person, but it is a requirement that 23% of its residents fall into the indigent category. The Department of Social Development pays the organisation, which is a registered NPO and PBO, the equivalent of a monthly state pension of R1 780 for each of these residents. Obviously, this falls well short of the baseline cost per person, so fundraising is an ongoing challenge.
“This is an old building”, points out Gayle, “which means that maintenance is never-ending, but it also means that some of our furniture and equipment is practically antique and completely unfit for purpose. We have spray-painted our beds more times than I can count, but they and our commodes, for example, are so rickety that they’re becoming unsafe. A number of the beds don’t even have wheels. Some of our residents are permanently bed-ridden, so can you imagine what would happen if we had a fire and had to evacuate the place in a hurry, without being able to wheel the beds out!”
With its many needs in mind, SOFCA has launched a major crowd-funding drive to raise a total sum of R750 000. Gayle says she realises that elder care is not a sexy funding option, but if each medical practice in town had to donate somewhere between R1 000 and R5 000, and the same with attorneys, auditors, restaurants, wine estates, the list is endless … it really shouldn’t be impossible to reach.
Although she loves her job, Gayle says what makes her sad is that some of the residents never receive a single visitor. “We try to beautify the place as much as we can, offer the residents daily activities and encourage family members to personalise the residents’ rooms with their own things and pictures on the walls. Unfortunately, many of them have done nothing. We are always so grateful when volunteers are prepared to take them for walks or simply keep them company, and we must pay tribute to an organisation like the Old Boys’ Rugby Club, which every year provides our residents with a festive Christmas meal and a small gift for each one.”
It might be well hidden, but deep within these men and women, a unique personality continues to exist, one which has experienced love, pain, laughter, grief. They deserve, as much as anyone, to be honoured and treated with dignity and respect. And their saintly carers need our support.