23 years ago my mother moved into a complex known as “Reuven” in the South of Johannesburg. At the time it was being managed by Johannesburg Association For The Aged (aka JAFTA). I do recall that getting into the place was very difficult as you had to get on the list and go for an interview etc. As luck would have it she managed to get a place quite easily and moved in shortly thereafter.
The “unit” was really a single room with a small bathroom and kitchen and a bit of space to have a garden. It was basic, but not horrible. The rents were cheap and the facility took people on outings and there was a working kitchen that used to supply lunch for those who were interested. There was also a laundromat and realistically it was a pleasant place to live, assuming you did not have the neighbours from hell and there was a resident caretaker who ensured that work was done and the complex was maintained.
The block where my mother lived had the local “dragon” as well as a long term resident who considered that she had fallen on hard times and was always muttering about leaving. There was also an elderly man who lived above her and they gave him absolute hell, hounding him from the complex.
(A quick note. I am not going to supply names in this post, but will describe many of the residents with their associated nicknames and faults. Many have since passed on).
At the time there was a caretaker who lived on the premises and who ensured that the council labourers performed their jobs properly. They kept grass cut, removed litter, trimmed trees, emptied dustbins, etc. They also earned a few rands doing “unofficial” jobs for the residents. It was really the sort of place where you could live out your old age in relative peace and safety (assuming that you never had the neighbours from hell and the status quo was maintained.)
Somewhere along the line things started to wobble; I cannot put a date to it, or a specific event, but things just started going wrong. Maintenance slipped, the caretaker left, grass was no longer cut, litter became commonplace and sadly the lady who used to look after the kitchen passed away (Thank you Mina, we will remember you with fondness). There was also a lot of unauthorised modifying of the units, and the usual stirrers stirred the pot. Even at that point it was still very affordable for those who survived on the meagre state pension. Technically a means test was done on new applications, but many who moved in were getting much more than the state pension. You could see it in the new cars and DSTV dishes that sprouted all over the place.
Then things went even more pear shaped and the dirty hand and greasy palm of corruption reared its ugly head. Bribes were paid, and units were “bought”. Blind eyes were turned and the road through the complex became a battleground because some residents appropriated sections as their own personal parking space. It was so bad that traffic cones stand sentinel while the residents are out and about in their cars. Curtains twitched like mad and shouting matches erupted regularly. It would have made a perfect soap opera if anybody had set up cameras.
My brother and I visited my mother every Sunday at Reuven since 1994, and often I could only shake my head at some of the goings on there. The dragon upstairs faded away and the next door neighbour would leave and never return. In fact we always used to comment on who had passed away that week. Like many places it also attracted its share of dunks, wife beaters, dementia sufferers and ne’er do wells. And each left their nasty mark on the environment. There were no repercussions for any wrong doing. It became a free for all.
Petty theft was rampant, and one incident made me extremely angry. Two “plumbers” were sent to sort out a leaking tap or toilet and they stole my mothers engagement and wedding rings. My brother and I wanted to call the police but my mother would have nothing of it. But I could see she was very hurt over the episode. The lack of maintenance meant that when a geyser failed it was not replaced, when the toilets leaked nobody did anything. Grass became junglelike in appearance, cars were driven up the pavements and parked outside flats, fallen trees rotted where they fell, and money changed hands on a regular basis. Some residents did not pay their rent and the whole web of corruption just continued and nothing was done about it.
At some point pre-paid electricity meters were installed, which was good news because Johannesburg City Power were physically incapable of delivering a bill that made sense, or even reading the meters on a regular basis. My mother was on the receiving end of their incompetence, paying larger and larger amounts every month because they just carried on messing her around. By the time they installed a prepaid meter they alleged that she owed them almost R1500 in arrears. How a single person in a small flat could use so much electricity was unbelievable. In spite of numerous attempts to sort the problem out we were unable to get them to do their job properly. At the time of writing they have never refunded the money that was paid by mother through their incompetence. By the time I left for the UK in 2013 solar geysers were installed in the flats and when my mothers geyser stopped working she relied on it. She complained for almost 2 years and they never bothered to fix it, or even came out to look at it. The geyser was really her bugbear because it leaked for years and nothing was ever done because she did not offer a backhander.
In March this year I returned to Reuven as it was evident that she was no longer able to cope on her own and we had to make a decision and at some point she would have to leave Reuven and move into a care home. She lived in her flat for 23 years, the longest that she has lived in one place her whole life. When I was there I could not help but feel very sad to see the remnants of her life and independence that remained. Her dressing table has been with her since before I was born, and she still uses some of the cutlery from her original dinner service. She replaced her bed when she moved in and has slept on that bed for 23 years. She is still using the fridge I bought in 1986, and while the TV and DVD player is relatively new, I do not think she has been using it since the beginning of this year. In fact she used to listen to the wireless a lot, and now Radio Today has lost one of their only fans 😉 Her current neighbour has been a pillar of strength, and without her I do not know what we would have done.
In the time she lived there she did not really associate with most of the residents, although there were those who she befriended. One was an elderly coloured lady called Katey who used to visit her and do odd jobs for her. My mother and her were very close, but she passed away suddenly and my mother was devastated, as were we. It was part of the problem of living in a place like this, many would walk in and be carried out. Residents died regularly, often unnoticed until the smell of decay raised eyebrows.
The sad thing was that if something did happen to a resident, they were helpless. There was no help available. There was no regular nurse or caretaker or medical service. And unfortunately, when somebody passed away it became a regular free for all with residents to see who could get there first to remove furniture or white goods. Never mind that the former resident has not even been buried yet.
The whole Reuven experience was interesting because I saw the best and worst of my fellow man. I could write reams about the disaster that it became. Yet, for many it was home, and for many it was the last home that they had. It is such a pity that it was allowed to become a hot bed of corruption, and I sincerely hope that those responsible get locked away for a very long time for exploiting the aged. And, those that were paying the bribes get to feel the weight of the law too. It take two parties to be corrupt, and a blind eye of those in authority to allow it to thrive.
The one interesting part of visiting Reuven was the collection of old cars that some residents had. It provided a lot of material for my website.
For my brother and I a chapter closes on this part of our lives. We may never pass Reuven again, although I may end up there myself one day. Anything is possible.
I am sure my mother was just as scared of moving to this final home in her life as we are, only more so.
Rest in Peace Katey, thank you for all you did, and for being so special, and thanks to all of those who were a part of my mothers life. As for the rest? you know what they say about the wheel that turns?
My mother finally moved a week ago and my brother emptied the flat this weekend and gave away most of her furniture and appliances that she would no longer need. For me it has been very sad because I suspect at some point I will be in her position, the only difference being that I will have nowhere to go.
My mother passed away on the 7th of October 2019.
DRW © 2017-2019. Created 7 May 2017, finally posted 28/05/2017.