CAREER: From military criminologist to rest home activities co-ordinator Elma Turnbull’s career has taken some sharp turns. Photo Troy Baker D9059-06

WHEN Elma Turnbull graduated as a criminologist, the path of her career in the Philippines was in little doubt.

She followed her dream of joining the military, joining the Philippine Air Force as a trainer in its intelligence section and remaining there for several years.

But Elma says her career was always doing battle with her inherent compulsion to travel.

“I’ve always loved to travel. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do more than anything else,” she says. It would be one of Elma’s many trips that would lead her career to unfold in a way she’d never imagined, and in a country far from home.

Today, Elma is in her 16th year at Whakatane’s Bupa Mary Shapley Retirement Village and Care Home where she works as an activities co-ordinator, a job she says is the best in the world. Beginning as a caregiver at the home, she took over her new role four years ago, a dual position she shares with another colleague, and one she wouldn’t change for anything.

But that Elma ended up living in New Zealand in the first place was the result of a decision not easily made.

On a trip to New Zealand during the 1980s to see “this country the same size as the Philippines but on the other side of the world,” Elma says she fell in love. And not only with the country. Sightseeing in Rotorua with her friends, she also fell in love with the man she would later marry.

But moving to New Zealand to do so was a decision she says took almost two years to make.

“It was a very hard decision. It took a long time to make because while I was in love, I wasn’t ready to give up my independence, my travels, and my family.”

Having travelled by then to many parts of the world, living and working in Germany, at the time, Elma was preparing to move to Los Angeles to take up a new role with a security and surveillance company. “Ultimately, I decided not to go.”

But it would take longer, until finally, at the prompting of the grandmother who’d raised her, she would decide to move to New Zealand and marry her sweetheart. “It was definitely the right decision,” she says.

Having lived in Kawerau and Whakatane for several years, Elma and her husband were later living in Tauranga where the couple was running their own small café when her husband became ill and passed away.

“It was very hard,” she says. “We’d had 12 years together.” With their only child, a son, aged seven at the time, she says running the café on her own was too difficult. “I would have to get our son up and take him to work with me at 4am and put him back to sleep on his little bed till it was time for school.” But when Elma’s late husband’s father became ill, the café would go.

“I’d promised my husband I would look after his parents when they needed it,” she says.

“I’m very close to them.” When her father-in-law became sick, Elma returned to Whakatane, and it was then that her work at Mary Shapley began.

“I needed a job and I knew this role would be great for me. I’d worked with elderly people in Germany, not in a rest home, but in the community, and I’d loved it. And being raised by my grandparents, I’ve always had an affinity with older people.”

Elma describes her work at Mary Shapley as something to be treasured. “I feel honoured to work with people who have had so much life experience, to be able to just love and hug them and be loved and hugged in return. I love them all. How could you not,” she asks, spreading her arms to indicate the many residents currently filling the activity room outside of her office, many of whom refer to her as their daughter.

“I’ve been adopted many times over,” she laughs. “I’d take them all home with me if I could.”

Elma’s role at the centre concerns activities and entertainment for its residents. She co-ordinates all manner of activities from overseeing the residents planting and tending of the new raised vegetable gardens in the centre grounds, to transporting a team to regular 10-pin bowling competitions against other rest home teams in Tauranga – “we were terrible when we first started going but this year we’ve won three times already”.

There is the organisation of arts and crafts, day trips out in the van, massage therapy, and spiritual and religious activities, musical performers, as well as visits from the ever-popular therapy dogs and SPCA animals. “We have regular visits from school children, too, which is wonderful. Young children do wonders for the spirit of our residents. Community involvement is so important. It makes a real difference to our residents’ lives. Elma’s own seven-year-old granddaughter visits regularly, taking the time to talk to everyone individually.

“She’s likes me, she likes the one-on-one, and she loves older people.”
And Elma says, “Shall We Dance?” an elaborate ball-like event held annually in all Bupa rest homes is always a highlight. “It’s a great chance for everyone to dress up and have fun and it brings back memories for our residents of all their dance hall days.”

Mary Shapley also holds another large annual dance event each year with a different theme. This year’s theme was The Royal Dance. “The families of our residents get involved too and it’s just fantastic. Everyone gets really dressed up and it’s so much fun.”

She says relationships with the families of residents is a vital part of the job. “We need to open our hearts to the families, to ask them what else we can do, to get feedback on what can we do better. Having the trust and faith of the family is very important because really, we are doing it together.”

But perhaps nowhere is Elma more passionate than when carrying out the exercise classes that she developed and implements for her residents. The classes are highly popular, spoken of regularly by residents who enjoy both the classes themselves, and the therapeutic benefits resulting from them.

Elma, who is also a 2nd Dan Black Belt and is internationally qualified to teach martial arts, says building off knowledge of physical movement gained throughout her life, her exercise programme is aimed at getting everyone moving, no matter what their ability. Along with working one-on-one with individual residents on most, days, classes are held regularly.

“I do a sitting tai chi class involving breathing exercises, which can be very good for people with dementia and I do other programmes including exercise to music, which people really love, and a variety of memory exercises mixed with physical exercise.

“It’s great for the body and it’s like an oil for the brain. And we do a laughing exercise too,” she says. “I’m not sure how that started happening. I think the residents just looked at me and thought I looked like a clown. I love it.”

Elma quietly shares some of her successes; a former pianist who couldn’t move her hands, and who was also immobile, who is now “getting around all over the place, and playing the piano again, too,” and a man who’d arrived at the rest home bed-bound. “He said to me ‘I’ve come here to die’.

“That man isn’t here anymore,” she happily tells. “I’d started off with him by saying ‘let’s just do a little bit of leg exercise’ and it grew from there. Within a year he became mobile again and felt so much better that he decided to go back home again.

“There are some hard days for sure, but my job is so rewarding. I still wake up every day wanting to come in to work. This is my second home, and all these residents, they’re my family.

“I always say that I lost my grandparents when I left the Philippines and they later passed away, but I’ve gained many grandparents since I began my work here. I’m very happy.”

By Lorraine Wilson