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Jo'Burg Days: He Almost Lost It All

"How sad, and what an indictment of this extravagently rich city, that it seems it is only the elderly who perch so precariously themselves on the edge of insecurity, who can really appreciate the fear and anxiety of ageing pensioners, forced for many different reasons to live alone...''

Barbara Durlacher's true story about the plight of a lonely, feeble old man is set in Johannesburg. Hundreds of thousands of elderly people are caught it in similar sad situations in cities and towns around the world.

“Well, it’s only the curtains that still have to be hung then we can arrange the furniture and put everything away. I’ll make up the bed and we’ll be just about finished,” she said, wearily straightening her back.

Things were getting really difficult as she got older. The old hip injury was giving her gip, not such a good idea to put so much pressure on it with these sustained hours of bending and carrying. The doctor had told her the hip was a “good as new,” but she knew it wasn’t really, and she did not want to make a fuss when she realised that he had done his best to repair the remains of the shattered bones after the accident.

Anyway, “Cousin Stefan” would be arriving soon with the furniture removers, and once they had got the bed, tables, cupboard and chairs installed, they would fetch “Karl” and settle him in. Poor old man, what shock it was for him when he was told that the Sunset Rest Home for the Aged was to be sold, and the residents had only a month to find other accommodation.

Most of them had nowhere else to go, although some had distant relatives who would try to find them a corner somewhere. But some, and Karl was one of the saddest cases, had nobody at all. Nobody to come to their aid and worse, nobody to care, and most of them were simply too old and feeble to look after themselves or find any alternatives. Few could afford the rents rapacious landlords were asking, pensions were tiny, and life in this bustling, rich city had no time or patience for the old and infirm.

Once a developer had his eyes on a prime piece of land in an upmarket area there was little anyone could do to stem the tide of progress; appeals fell on deaf ears, and money was the only commodity that had any currency. In the words of the old saw, “money talked,” and to imagine that the hardhearted and iron-willed property moguls had any sympathy or pity for lesser mortals was to open one to futile hopes that things could be changed; and in this city, this would never happen.

When the home had been sold to the developer making the highest offer, residents were told that they would have been out by the end of the month, and they would lose everything if they could not find alternative accommodation. That meant that he would lose the few bits of furniture he had retained after his wife died and he sold the house, as well as the roof over his head. It would all go in the reshuffle, and in one month, at the age of 87, his life would change forever.

“If Cousin Stefan and I had not been prepared to step in and help, he would have been left destitute, with nobody to care and nowhere to go. Such a cruel end for my dear old friend. Nobody else is worried, but I’ll make sure that Stefan and I do what we can, we will not let the old man die alone and friendless,” she had decided and had moved with determination to find him alternative housing.

“Thank heavens we are all German-born and that the German Old Age Home has said they are prepared to offer him something when everybody else looked the other way. Otherwise I really don’t know what we would have done,” she mused as she finished the last and most decisive phone call. “They’ll offer him a small room and board, but he must furnish it himself, and we’ll see what we can do to get him the essentials. Stefan can get the furniture movers next Wednesday and I’ll organise it with the Sunset Home that they let him take the furniture he brought with him to the new place.”

“Well, it’s all well that ends well, I just hope that the poor old man can withstand the nervous shock of having to move and re-establish himself after all the trouble we’ve taken to help, but time will show how he settles down.”

So, this story had a happy ending, but perhaps the most remarkable thing is that both “Maria”, the narrator and “Cousin Stefan” are also over eighty years old, and have been so moved by the plight of their old friend that they have done what no-one else was prepared to do. They have cared for a man who, through no fault of his own, was alone and frightened, at a time when he is unable to do anything for himself.

Both of these valiant, decent old people have had hip operations. In “Maria’s” case, she has had two operations on the same hip, and in “Cousin Stefan’s”, both hips have been replaced.

How sad, and what an indictment of this extravagantly rich city that it seems it is only the elderly who perch so precariously themselves on the edge of insecurity, who can really appreciate the fear and anxiety of ageing pensioners. Forced for many different reasons to live alone, including outliving their contemporaries, people in these circumstances are caught up in events beyond their control, to find that their world is being shaken to its foundations.

Shrinking pensions, the scarcity of reasonably priced accommodation, a lack of social support services, extremely limited public transport and implacable municipal bureaucracy makes finding a solution almost impossible. For the privileged enmeshed in their sophisticated lives and so unaware of these small tragedies, the aged are invisible, but for these survivors there is very little respite or help unless a kind and caring person steps in to change their situation.


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