Elderly trapped in old age home after elevators breaks down

2019-05-09 15:18
Old age home. (Photo: Carla Coetzee)

Old age home. (Photo: Carla Coetzee)

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Elderly residents of this old age home in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, say they’re suffering.

Thelma Doliveira, a resident of the Donovan McDonald Centre for the elderly, says twice a week she has to climb five sets of stairs to go grocery shopping. And at age 85, this is no mean feat.

For the rest of the week, she stays in her flat.  

Thelma is only one of many residents who are struggling because the home’s lifts have been out of order for months. A day before YOU’s visit, one of the elevators had been fixed, local media reports, but residents say it only works sometimes. If a resident wants to travel to one of the upper floors, someone has to send the lift to the floor where they’re waiting.

The premises of the large brick building look neglected. Weeds are growing in the flower beds. There are a few cars in the parking area. But the hallways are clean and free of litter.

Thelma Doliveira

Mary Bernharde (70) often joins Thelma in her fifth-floor flat for a game of cards.

All the apartments in the main building consist of a single bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom.

“I’ve got stuck in the lift between floors three times. For months it didn’t work at all. I’ve heard one’s been fixed but I don’t trust it. What happens if I get stuck again? And there’s no manager on duty,” Mary says.

“Come on, Granny, it’s your turn,” she tells Thelma, but has to repeat it. “Granny doesn’t hear so well anymore,” Mary says, smiling.

Most of the residents here live on a government pension of R1 800 a month.

Thelma is a retired preprimary school teacher. She’s been living here for 10 years. She says she sometimes feels as if the world’s forgotten her here in the heart of Roodepoort.

Thelma has six children, five of whom are still alive. She also has 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Asked about how she copes with climbing the stairs, she shrugs.

“I’m usually exhausted afterwards and I stop on every storey to catch my breath. Usually one of the young ones will help me carry my groceries,” she says. With “the young ones” she means residents younger than 70.

Thelma also has issues with leaking taps and says she’s reported it.

Frankie Oliveira (85) lives a few flats from Thelma.  

“He’s one of the decent men,” Mary says about Frankie, and winks.

Frankie’s grey hair is neatly combed back. He emigrated to South Africa from his native Portugal 50 years ago. His two sons live there.

When he invites us in, he’s busy planning his budget at a small table with two chairs. He’s written down all his expenses in his neat handwriting on small pieces of paper – he’ll file it later.

“We pay just under R200 [a month] to rent here. I know it’s not much but we’re still tenants. We expect services,” he tells us.

Frankie says getting anything in the flat fixed is a nightmare and he struggles to do it himself. “It takes months to repair something.”

He used to be a handbag designer and shows us the designs for crocodile skin and ostrich leather bags he drew years ago.

“Twice in recent months someone stole the battery out of my car. No one knows anything. The security guards don’t even make visitors sign in,” he says.

YOU was made to sign in when we visited. The department of housing, who owns the building and is responsible for its maintenance and security measures, says security has been tightened after several complaints were received.

Frankie talks about his trip to Portugal next month to visit his children. Yes, he’ll be coming back, he says. “After all, this is my country now,” he emphasises.  

Frankie Oliveira

Lydia Moetsie (86) has been living on the first floor since 2004. She used to be a domestic helper.

“My child died in the ’80s, so I have no one,” she tells us. “My elder sister is ill, so we don’t see each other.”

She shuffles over to the bedside table to turn down the radio, her back bent into a question mark. Her flat is spotlessly neat. She shows us her swollen legs and feet and tells us she has a hard time walking.

Once a week, she has to climb the three flights of stairs to buy groceries.

“I do my shopping on Tuesdays. I take the bus,” she says.

Asked about the elevators, she just shakes her head. “Eish, they make me struggle so much. My legs are so painful, all the way to here,” she says, gesturing to her hip.

Lydia says on shopping days she’ll often wait downstairs hoping someone will come along to help her carry her groceries upstairs. She doesn’t trust the lift, but is glad if one works.

“When I moved in, they used to give us special lunches on Valentine’s Day or performers would visit to entertain us. Now, nothing happens here anymore,” she sighs.

Does she ever get visitors, or does she have friends here?

“Nobody ever visits. There’s a woman down the hall who helps me – I suppose you could say we’re friends.”

Lydia Moetsi

Francis Bubb (75) hasn’t left the fifth floor since February. She’s wheelchair-bound following a hip replacement gone wrong.

When we visit she’s sitting on her bed, a packet of cigarettes next to her.

“Excuse the mess. It’s laundry day – we’re cleaning and changing the sheets,” she tells us.

Francis says she’s at her wits’ end about the broken lifts.

“Last year the lifts were out of order for eight months out of the 12. I couldn’t go to hospital and had to pay a nurse to come and take my blood pressure,” she says.

Her daughter, who lives in America, buys her groceries online and has it delivered to her on a weekly basis.

“I read and do crossword puzzles. But it’s depressing to be trapped in my little room all the time.”

She says she likes window shopping and misses being able to go out.

Though the elevator supposedly works now, she’s nervous about using it.

“What if I go all the way down and it breaks down again? How will I get back up? We’d have to call the fire department,” she says, her laughter making the bed shake. 

“I’m on the phone a lot. I have a friend on the second floor – we chat on the landline. She also can’t visit often because she has bad asthma and can’t climb all those stairs,” Francis tells us.

“What if there’s a fire? What then? How will I get out? How will everyone else get out? I sometimes worry about that.

“They say they’ve ordered two lifts from overseas. But we’ll have to wait and see.”

Asked about who she’d contact in an emergency, she shrugs.

Apart from the cleaning staff, there was no management on the premises when YOU visited.

The Johannesburg housing department says there’s a manager who sees to the running of several properties in the area.

Francis Bubb

Residents who are placed in the Donovan McDonald Centre are supposed to be self-sufficient, says Bubu Xuba, spokesperson for the department in the Johannesburg metro.

He acknowledges that some of the residents’ health can deteriorate without the department’s knowledge.

“We’re going to restructure the department. The process will be completed within the next financial year,” Xuba says. “We believe this will help us more speedily identify and help those in need. One of the strategies we’re considering is appointing intern social workers to help the aged in our [the metro’s] old age homes.”

He confirmed that two elevators had been ordered from overseas and that they’d be installed within the next two months. “In the meantime, we’ve repaired one of the lifts.”

The metro has budgeted R50 million for repairs and maintenance to buildings such as the Donovan McDonald Centre, he says.

“We acknowledge the [broken] lifts are making life hard for the elderly and we’re doing everything we can to fix the issue.”

Read more on:    johannesburg
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