Community steps up

Helderberg Society for the Aged (HSFA) staff members, Christopher Pedro, Drieka Jacobs, Margaret Willscutt, and Elsie Sinkfontein with some of the 100 mattresses HSFA bought to accommodate staff.

In the maelstrom of bad news bombarding society during the Covid-19 pandemic, the heartwarming stories about how communities respond in times of crisis tend to be lost in the noise.

Helderberg Society for the Aged (HSFA) in Somerset West cares for 665 residents, who, with a median age of 83, all fall within one of the highest risk age cohorts for exposure to Covid-19.

In self-imposed lockdown since March 16, and determined to avoid Covid-19 finding its way into its facilities, HSFA management took a decision to house a significant proportion of its own and contractor staff – nurses, carers, key admin people, XZone security and Geratec catering – either on site at its Vonke Park facility, or close by, within walking distance, to avoid the need for travelling to and from home.

“We also have staff who are jumping in to do more than just their duties, whatever it takes, to support the residents to remain in their units and flats,” said HSFA marketing manager, Helen Lee.

An appeal to the community for suitable spaces nearby that could be turned into accommodation for the lockdown period, as well as the myriad of bedding and other resources needed to accommodate the staff in relative comfort, yielded a wonderful response.

“It is truly heartwarming to see the HSFA community – which includes residents, staff, families, service providers, and surrounding organisations – coming together in its efforts to prevent the spread of the virus into our facilities,” said Ms Lee. “Senior managers, unit managers, admin staff, cleaning staff, nursing and caring staff, as well as the security and catering contract staff, have all volunteered to stay on site to minimise the risk of contamination. They are the true heroes.”

Many of them have families of their own, from whom they will be separated for the 21-day lockdown.

Enrolled nursing auxiliary, Elsa Boer, one of the volunteers who has elected to be housed onsite, said: “As a nurse, I feel obliged to take care of the residents. My children are in the care of my sister (during lockdown) and my husband is at home.”

Housekeeper, Joanne Jonker, said: “My husband and our children 18, 21, and 23 (years old) are at home. It feels good to be here, because what we’re doing is looking after the seniors, and taking care of their health. At the end of the day, it is vital that we look after them. As one of our residents said to me, we shouldn’t be looking after them, we should be looking after our children, but I said: ‘No, our children can look after themselves, and there are also other people looking after them.’ So, we are here to look after them to the best of our abilities, to make and keep them happy and safe, during this time.”

“We bought 100 mattresses at a 50% discount from Strand Foam and we had linen and blankets donated by the community. It is important to us that we keep our residents safe and not have external contamination,” said Ms Lee.

“We also wish to thank the community for staying in their homes and helping us keep our residents safe, as well as the donations of masks, sanitisers, and so forth.”

Local organisations close to the HSFA’s Vonke Park, that stepped up to make facilities available for temporary accommodation are the Rotary Club of Somerset West; Helderberg Girl Guides; Marshal Smuts Shellhole, the Old Bill and members; 1st Somerset West Scouts Group, and 1st Gordon’s Bay Sea Scouts Group.

Bulk linen and blanket donations came from the public; Westin Grand Hotel Cape Town, Martin Stroebel; and members of the Rotary Club of Somerset West.

“The response from organisations that we approached for donations of linen and for halls to house the staff nearby has been overwhelming. The community is eager to assist and say that they just want to do something, anything to help.

“We are deeply grateful for this outpouring of generosity and support,” said HSFA chief executive officer, Rika Rodd.

Asked how HSFA staff staying onsite are coping, Ms Rodd said: “They miss their families and are concerned about their wellbeing. There is a feeling of camaraderie among the staff. It has also been positive, as staff are now getting to know each other on a personal level, with all levels of staff working together.

“We are currently working on skeleton staff in order to minimise the risk of contamination.”

Turning to how residents are coping with the lockdown, she said: “I think there is a vast array of emotions in how residents are dealing with it. Many are making the most of this situation. They understand that it is for their own safety. They miss their families. The initial panic seems to have settled, and they are adjusting to the norm of the current situation.

“In Vonke Park specifically, some of the independent residents are assisting with various chores, like dishing up for the staff. The residents and families are supportive of the staff and understand the enormous sacrifice that these staff members are making during this period. We are also trying to support the staff at the sites to keep their morale high.”

“The HSFA is dealing with the logistical issues of staff on site and putting systems in place to support our residents in all our various units in order to keep them safe. This is no small task,” said Ms Rodd.

“The initial phase was to ensure that lockdown was put in place. We are working tirelessly to put systems in place to continue supporting all residents during this period. We ask residents, their families and the community for their patience and support while we deal with the various issues.”