Supporting each other while we age

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THIS column is dedicated to my much loved ‘Uncle Henk’. Hendricus van Teeffelen was his full name, but, as children, my sister and I called him ‘Uncle Hankie’.

At first I hesitated to write about him, as he was a retiring gentleman, not one to seek even the minuscule fame of being subject of a column in a small community newspaper. In the end I decided that he might not smile at having his life remembered in this way, but he would forgive me for taking the liberty.

Uncle Henk was not a “real” uncle, but he was a close friend of my parents. He taught my sister and I to ride bikes when we were young. Like many immigrants, my parents, who arrived after the Second World War, had a dairy in Auckland.

To one side they set up a coffee bar where people sat outside under umbrellas. Coffee and outdoor seating were new to the milkbar scene of those days and their “Dutch Inn” became a mecca for many Dutch immigrants through the 1950s.

Such places are vital to build community and support among people newly arrived to our country. It was through this that Uncle Henk and his older brother Nick came to know my parents. Uncle Nick was the extrovert brother. He never married , concerned that his intermittent bouts of mental illness might be hereditary. But he did well in his life, setting up his own business, joining Rotary, and a church. Many people from his wide networks came to his funeral in 2008.

Uncle Henk was an accountant rising to be a manager even though he never gained university qualifications. In those days you were assessed more on your competency than education.

When computers began to take over, he took early retirement at 55. He loved people but he was shy, an introvert through and through. His seven-year marriage was mostly unhappy and he saw this as a low point in his life. He never joined a club or a church. His social life revolved around trips and activities with his brother.

Before he died, Uncle Nick asked me to keep an eye on his brother, who he knew was in danger of becoming isolated. So for 10 years I have done just that, becoming increasingly close to my uncle.

I soon found out that he had only three friends, John and Joy, a couple in Auckland and myself. One of his brother’s friend’s Jamie, joined this small team and that made four.

Apart from us he only knew some neighbours who called in. One, a skilled builder, helped him maintain his home.

In his 80’s Uncle Henk was becoming cautious and reluctant to stay away from home overnight, so I never enticed him to Whakatane even for one night, much less to live here.

So every six-to-eight weeks at first and then more often as he became frail, I would go to Auckland to stay with him. With my friend, Johnny, we would go to parks, beaches, museums and art galleries. We would play Scrabble and share meals. In the mornings he would do the Herald crossword while I did jigsaws or clean the windows. In the evenings we’d watch Coronation Street together and marvel over the increasingly ridiculous plot lines.

It was during those years that I came to realise how isolated people become in our communities today. Uncle Henk had money so he could live comfortably, but he lacked friends and family. He had lost touch with all relatives back in Holland and knew no living relatives anywhere in the world.

Uncle Henk became increasingly disabled with falls and hospitalisation and I supported him to adapt to new services and equipment, to negotiate with medical professionals, to make a complaint when he was treated disrespectfully.

Uncle Henk had some wonderful home help staff, some of whom grew to love him. One did his shopping. After it became painful for him to leave home, he trusted her with his bank card and pin, though he always told me he never had more than $1000 on that account.

Finally, when it was no longer safe for him to be alone, his close Auckland friend, Joy, gave up her work and, with her husband John, moved in to live with him, providing him with company, care and love. Last month, at 93, he took his final breath, in his own home with people who loved him by his side.

Many readers will have supported their family members adapt to disability and seen them become increasingly isolated. Not all end so well. When you have only a very few friends in your life, some may develop their own illness or have other commitments and you can end up utterly alone.

My Uncle Henk was my spur to action, to work with others in our community to find ways we can share our skills and strengths while supporting one another as we age.

American writer, Margaret Wheatley says “There is no power for change like a community discovering what it cares about.” The many people supporting seniors and kaumatua, and the growth of Eastern Bay Villages: Te Kokoru Manaakitanga, are a testament to that truth.

Grey Matters

By Ruth Gerzon

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