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Life is tough for elderly still living in Hillbrow and Berea

  • alan-lurie-2
Alan Lurie is the “zaida of the hood” in Hillbrow, having lived there for almost 30 years. He intends staying for as long as he can.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Sep 06, 2018

Lurie, 77, suffers from a number of health issues, but that doesn’t stop him from hailing a minibus taxi to attend shul a few blocks away, or making his way to Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital to receive his medication.

Although he lives in one of the crime capitals of the world, he is proud of being a Hillbrow resident. “I like it here. It’s convenient,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week.

But life is far from easy for Lurie. He has no close relatives, no medical aid, and very few resources. Living in Hillbrow is no picnic. However, he has a place to call home, a little flat in Van Der Merwe Street. He has food he cooks himself from the parcels he gratefully receives from Yad Aharon & Michael. He also gets a helping hand from the Chevrah Kadisha that goes a long way to making his life in the hood a little more pleasant.

“More importantly, he has friends,” said Reeva Forman, the Chairperson of Temple Israel Hillbrow, where he is a regular. According to her, Lurie is well liked by his neighbours and their children. He catches a taxi to Temple Israel every Shabbat (these days he has trouble walking the few blocks) and is welcomed by the congregation.

But, sadly, for many of the elderly, the outlook is not so cheerful. Many elderly Jews live in Hillbrow, and in the neighbouring suburbs of Berea, Bellevue, and Yeoville.

“Many are vulnerable, have no immediate family, no financial independence, and no medical aid,” said social worker Ingrid Woolf of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW). Life can be lonely, tough, and sometimes unbearable.

It is thanks to organisations like the Chevrah Kadisha, Yad Aharon, the UJW, and the Hebrew Order of David, and others, that these elderly residents have hope, and some love thrown in.

Woolf said that for many it is a choice to stay rather than to move into a home for the aged, away from everything familiar.

“They might be in the middle of Hillbrow, but they have their own place with their own bathroom. They live in a spacious, safe cocoon. Asking them to give this up for one room, and often a shared bathroom, is unthinkable for some,” she said.

For many, the fear of the unknown is what keeps them in these areas.

“If you try change their routine, or impose your ideas or make decisions on their behalf, you lose them. We have no right to do that,” Woolf said.

Daphne, 89, not her real name, has lived in Hillbrow for more than 50 years. According to Woolf, she is considering alternative accommodation because her living conditions are deteriorating. “There are regular power outages, water shortages, and most times the lifts don’t work,” Woolf said.

Daphne answers her phone out of breath explaining that she has had to walk up nine flights of stairs because the lifts are out of service. The water bill has not been paid by the landlord, so Johannesburg Water closed the taps.

Even the water from the fire hoses has run dry, she says. Kind neighbours bring her buckets of water, for which she is grateful. These added hardships have left her contemplating moving to a home for the aged, something she has tried to avoid.

“I just can’t take it anymore,” she says, heartbroken. Last week, she filled out an application form for Sandringham Gardens.

According to Woolf, Daphne never married, and has never driven a car. She is one of many elderly recipients of weekly Kosher Mobile Meals, (KMM), an initiative of the UJW.

Presently, the UJW has 160 elderly and frail recipients of KMM, including 20 to 25 who live in these areas. The meals are prepared and packed at Sandringham Gardens. Recipients are not able to cook for themselves, and only a few can afford to pay for meals. On average, one meal costs about R70. Depending on individual needs, a recipient can receive on average 4.7 meals a week. It costs the union between R120 000 to R130 000 a month, excluding foils and containers.

“That’s just the cost of the food,” said UJW Operations Manager Glenda Goldberg.

“We rely on donors, and we are under increasing financial pressure, with increasing numbers of those in need,” she said.

The union also hosts a Friendship Wednesday luncheon for the elderly, many of whom are recipients of KMM, and look forward to the human interaction.

Yad Aharon provides meals for well over 600 families, including parcels for about 20 to 25 elderly people in these areas.

“The excitement on their faces when they receive their food parcels, it’s like they’ve seen Hashem,” said Director Alice Friedman. “It’s not so much about the food as about seeing a friendly face.”

Michael Alfonso, or “Fonsi” as he is affectionately called, has worked for Yad Aharon for 18 years. He said some of the places he delivers food to are “too shocking for words”.

“The conditions are terrible, so poor, you wouldn’t believe it,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

One woman, who lives in Hillbrow with her husband, looks forward to his and assistant Banda Harrison’s visit every week. “She lives on the 13th floor, and walks downstairs at 06:00 every Wednesday to wait for us. The lifts hardly work. We can’t just drop the parcel and leave. We talk to her sometimes for 40 minutes,” Fonsi said.

For Sylvia, 96, (not her real name), Bellevue is the only home she has ever known. Frail and ailing, the thought of moving into a home for the aged fills her with dread. “My garden brings me joy. There is a little bridge running over a pond, and I can sit and stare at it all day through my bedroom window.” Burglar proofing, she said, keeps her safe, and she receives meals from the UJW.

The Chev relocated elderly and indigent Jewish people from areas like these in the mid-1990s.

“The intention was to improve their quality of life by integrating them into safer and more Jewish areas to the north of the city,” said Tzivia Grauman, the Head of Group Communications.

The purchase of The Capri in Savoy in 1997 was a major step forward, as it provided accommodation for 42 people who had been housed in hotels in Hillbrow and Berea. The Chev was also able to provide kosher food and a Jewish environment.

Grauman said that over the years, hundreds of people had been relocated, many to the Chev’s residential facilities like Sandringham Gardens, Our Parents Home, and The Capri, with others relocated to private subsidised accommodation.

“Today, only about 50 remain in those areas, many of whom refuse to move and choose to remain there. Strange as it may seem, there are people for whom change is too frightening to contemplate. In such cases, time and patience will provide the solution,” said Grauman.

In the meantime, the Chev supports those living in these areas with rent, subsidies, medical care, and social services, including visits from its social workers.

Forman, said that while the area had changed dramatically, “for these residents, it’s still their medina, it’s home. The thought of moving at this stage in their lives is quite terrifying. The choice to stay affords them the dignity they crave.”

Long-time KMM volunteer, Alice Goldman, said she helped because it was the right thing to do and because she could.

“I am comforted by the thought that there will be an active, caring ‘somebody’ who will be there for me in my twilight years if I need them,” she says.

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