A year into lockdown, Chev residents show fighting spirit
Can you imagine 365 days without leaving your place of residence during a pandemic that plagues such facilities, and surviving not only with your health intact, but your sanity as well? This is the reality for 1 000 residents in the Chevrah Kadisha (the Chev) of Johannesburg’s seven care facilities. Their lives were irrevocably changed when the residences went into a sudden lockdown on Friday, 13 March, 2020.
“It was so sudden. The day before, I had been out for coffee, and then the next day, we were in lockdown,” recalls 84-year-old Clara Taub, a resident at Our Parents Home (OPH). “Not seeing family or being able to hug your grandchildren is like a feeling of homesickness … it’s hard to explain,” she says.
Taub contracted COVID-19 in July 2020. She was hospitalised and survived. “It was really horrid. I was scared. I can’t remember much, but the care I got was incredible. I’ve never felt alone while being at OPH. Lockdown isn’t easy, but you’ve got to have faith, and know that every journey comes to an end. It’s how you manage the journey that’s important.”
Besides this experience, she has thrived under the new circumstances. As a former speech and drama teacher, she continues to work. She coaches over Zoom, and has written books which she sells online.
She delights in playing Trivial Pursuit over the phone with a friend, has started a newspaper with the same friend, and writes limericks and poetry for the Chev’s poetry competition – which she won! She also shops online and watches Netflix, but most of the time she’s so busy “that the days just fly by!”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on 5 March 2021, one year since the first COVID-19 case was identified in South Africa, Chief Executive Saul Tomson recalled how fast things changed at the Chev. “We were one of the first organisations to go into lockdown in the community and the country. It was such a shock for everyone.
“Residents were planning to see their families on the weekend, and then we decided to lock down. There were people coming from overseas to visit their parents, so it really had the potential to become a major issue. The president was yet to address the nation, but given what was going on in care homes across the world, we felt we had no choice.”
It took strength and courage to make such a decision, but Tomson said the fact that he had been in London two weeks prior as the pandemic began to rage wildly across Europe helped to guide his thinking.
“My mindset was different because I happened to be there. I could see how serious it was. In South Africa, it was still such a foreign concept. People said I was crazy, overreacting, and overly conservative. But I had already been messaging from London telling the organisation to stock up on supplies – everything we thought we might need.”
Tomson wants to pay tribute to the 1 000 residents’ “sense of courage and conviction”. “They are desperate to hug and hold their families. They have had to adjust to a new way of living while knowing that they are the most vulnerable population. Residential care homes are ‘ground zero’ for this virus.”
To honour the residents for their resilience during such a tough year, the Chev has launched a campaign for 1 000 community members to donate R18, which will buy a cupcake and a rose for each resident – a symbol of the fact that the community is thinking of them. There will also be a very special Friday night dinner this Shabbat at each facility, catered by a community caterer who has also battled over the past year.
“Each dinner has been sponsored by the children of one of the residents at that facility. For the caterers, it will be their first 1 000-person event they are catering in a year. And the residents will be spoilt and celebrated.”
Looking at recent statistics, Tomson notes that in Spain, 59% of COVID-19 deaths were from residents of long-term care facilities. In Belgium, it was 57%; in Sweden, 47%; in the United States, 38%; and in the United Kingdom, 27%. Yet at this stage of the pandemic, the mortality rate at the Chev’s care facilities is tiny in comparison. In the second wave, there were just a handful of infections across all homes. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. We thank Hashem every day,” he said.
“COVID-19 has devastated aged homes, and we’ve seen it locally in organisations that don’t have the protocols, discipline, or finances. Without this community, there’s no way we could have mounted this defence. For example, we’ve conducted nearly 3 000 COVID-19 tests in the past year. That runs into several million rand.”
Possibly unique to the organisation is the fact that it saw the challenges of COVID-19 not only as a clinical issue, but a psychosocial one too. “Yes, this virus can be devastating to one’s health, but we also have to look at the alienation and depression that it has caused. Our community social workers have witnessed a huge increase in mental-health issues in the Jewish community, and from the start, we saw this as a dual challenge – to protect residents’ physical health as well as to protect them emotionally and spiritually.
“That’s why our social services and life-enrichment teams worked so hard to make them feel seen, heard and loved. Even at the height of our intense lockdown, when they were confined to their rooms, they would get two to three visits a day, comfort packs, phone calls, a gift for Shabbos, or flowers. And, living in a facility means that they always have each other.”
Tomson said that ironically, the Chev possibly had less deaths in the past 12 months than in a “normal” year, and it was “one of our healthiest years. Our four doctors have prescribed significantly less antibiotics compared to a usual year! This is obviously due to infection control, segregation, no visitors, and wearing masks.”
So, what’s changed, and what has stayed the same? “Today, we are less anxious. COVID-19 is less of an unknown. I remember the first six months, just waiting for ‘that call’. I don’t feel that way anymore because we have experience,” said Tomson.
“The way we work has had to change. Everything from fundraising to staff team building, to keeping people motivated and inspired. What has also changed is that residents with family overseas have had more frequent contact thanks to technology and innovation. We have dedicated staff members facilitating video calls, connecting residents with their loved ones.
“But our commitment hasn’t changed, nor has our relationship with the community. People haven’t turned their backs, even in difficult times. They have dug deep, and found ways to show their support. So I say a massive ‘thank you’ to our residents for their courage and conviction, to the community for its unfaltering dedication, and to our staff for being the heroes they are.
“They say a society is judged by how it treats its elderly and for us, every life is treasured. It’s a feather in our cap as a community.”