Steve Braunias: The lost and found – A portrait of life inside a rest home
Summer in Auckland can often turn dark and oppressive. On days when the slow approach of a tropical thunderstorm turned the sky black and drained the Waitākere ranges of colour, I dreaded heading out to the Roseridge rest home in Henderson. It was deathly weather and it trapped the residents inside as surely as lockdown. They were housebound, feeble. Old age is a slope of decline and fall – the physical indignities, the mind wandering into some lunar wasteland. A visit on days like that seemed a bleak and cheerless way to spend my time but in fact every time I visited Roseridge in the summer of 2020-21, I left on a high, as though I had emerged from some strange and magical kingdom.
There was an uproarious Christmas party. There were epic talks with the resident who has lived at Roseridge the longest, Dominic Claffey, 71, a toothless Irishman who liked to muse at length about his life and anxieties. There was the day I arrived early in the morning and the residents drifted from their bedrooms to the lounge, sleepy and quiet, with sunlight pouring in through the windows. There were the valiant efforts to follow a fitness instructor on TV. Ros Taylor, 86,seldom made any sense; I went to see her daughter, Sheila, who wept as she talked about the cruelties of Alzheimer’s, how it had replaced her lively, beautiful mother with someone lost in a fog. “I wouldn’t want my children to see me like that,” she said, and cried even more.
And there were peaceful days just sitting around with the other residents who were just sitting around, calmly, happily, grateful that they’d lucked into a good thing. Roseridge is a small rest home. It’s really just a house, with 16 bedrooms and 11 residents, on the corner of Rathgar Rd and Larnoch Rd in deepest Henderson. Its obvious and striking appeal is that it’s homely, that it’s a family home. The family just happen to be very old, and sleepy, and in need of full-time care. I visited once a week since November and I missed them on the days in between: I was becoming part of the family, too and, at 60, I sometimes felt like I was auditioning for a room.
There are about 650 aged-care facilities in New Zealand and more than 32,000 New Zealanders living in rest homes. The outside world roars past, and beyond; rest-home life is at a softer pitch, the days measured in teaspoons, the nights retreating like a silent tide. Not a lot happens but I first visited Roseridge when it was transformed into a busy political arena, teeming with media: well, I was the teeming media, there to tag along on the October election campaign trail with local candidates Phil Twyford from Labour and Alfred Ngaro from National. Ngaro arrived at Roseridge to press the flesh on a Wednesday, Twyford on a Thursday. It was kind of exciting while it lasted but the nature of politics is that politicians come and go; the residents would stay exactly where they are, in that weatherboard house surrounded by a white picket fence, beneath the looming line of the Waitākere ranges in West Auckland.
I duly wrote up the Twyford-Ngaro encounter for the Herald. Journalism is a series of often very intimate encounters that end the second you close the door: thank you, next. But I wanted to go back to Roseridge. I was struck by the place – its homeliness, its good cheer, its sadness, its endless cups of tea. I liked the residents who I’d met and wondered how they got there, and what it was like. I had in mind visiting once a week to share something of their world. I asked management if that was okay. Summer is supposed to be the beach, the barbecue, the beer at sundown; I had a bit of that but I’ll remember this summer as my season at Roseridge, among the elderly, the medicated, the lost and found.
There was a sign fixed to the front gate the first time I arrived. “We are CLOSE to all visitors,” it read in uncertain English. As the central fact in New Zealand life, Covid holds even greater power over a rest home, with its vulnerable population. Roseridge was formerly called Evergreen; when new owner Sabrina Zhou bought it in late 2019, she briefly thought of calling it Rosewood. “Just as well we didn’t,” she said, and bowed her head. An outbreak of coronavirus in April last year took the lives of 12 people at a rest home in Christchurch: Rosewood.
The CLOSE sign was there during my visit last October with Twyford and Ngaro. Roseridge allowed only fixed appointments. Masks were compulsory. Gradually, though, the security levels were relaxed. Roseridge was liberated and the residents were finally allowed to leave the premises. One day I walked with Wai Iranui, 66, to the nearby dairy for a packet of smokes. The sun was out and even though she was on a walker, she fairly raced to get there. Residents called her Speedy. She’d go to the dairy for Choice cigarettes and a packet of Chocolate Thins – her weekly treat – and when she returned, someone would always say with alarm, “You’re back already?”
It took a while before I was able to take her aside for a chat. It wasn’t that she was reluctant, it was that she was constantly on the move. The bedrooms at Roseridge are on either side of two narrow hallways. The rooms are small and often very colourfully decorated with family pictures and such. Each hallway leads to the lounge, with a couch and a row of armchairs, and a widescreen TV fixed to the wall; and there’s also a dining room, a kind of sunroom, office, kitchen, laundry, two showers and four toilets. That’s really about it. Not a lot of room to navigate but you never knew where Wai would show up; she’d sail into the sunroom and sit for a while there, then she might get back on the walker and steer towards a seat out the front for a smoke, perhaps return inside and sit in the kitchen, and never park herself anywhere for very long. Always, though, she kept a careful watch on proceedings. Short-haired, with a prominent lower lip, and a low, merry laugh, she was the eyes and ears of the place.
“You should look in there,” she said one day. We were sitting next to each other in the lounge and she pointed to a filing cabinet. “You want to find out about us, that’s got the lot. All our medical records. That’ll tell you who we really are.” I was a bit loath to abuse the hospitality of Roseridge management by rifling through private records but she was making a valid point. All the residents were there because they needed some level of medical care. They were unable to look after themselves. Wai herself was vague about her own condition; there was diabetes, but she also mentioned she’d once been admitted to Carrington psychiatric hospital. “I don’t really know why I was sent there,” she said. They gave her electric shock treatment and she remembers waking up to see a young man sitting by the bed with a bunch of roses. “I thought, ‘Who’s this?’ The zap made me forget who I was and where I was. But then I realised he was my son.”
She came to Roseridge six years ago. “I had nowhere else to stay. The doctors sent me here.” She’d previously been living with her sister in Henderson, but it didn’t work out. Wai said her parents had 23 children. She wasn’t sure which number she was. We walked to the dairy, and she remarked her sister sometimes drove past when she saw her at the shops. “She’ll call out, ‘Go back to the rest home!’ She doesn’t want to know me.”
I liked Wai so much and felt bad asking her if she suffered from mental illness. She allowed that she used to have depression. “I’ve got over it,” she said.”Over the years, I’ve got over it.”
We were speaking in low voices but the real eyes and ears of Roseridge were alert to our conversation. “You’ve come a long way, eh Wai,” said the rest home’s activity co-ordinator Shea Siua. A dynamic, charismaticSamoan-New Zealand, she brings the noise to Roseridge, gets residents moving, gives them her heart. “Sometimes,” said Sheila, Ros Taylor’s daughter, “I think she shows Mum more love than I do.” And then she wept again.
Labour MP Phil Twyford was so taken with Siua on his election campaign visit that he called her afterwards and offered her a job. “She’s one of a kind,” he’d said to me when we left Roseridge that day. That was a fair assessment. Every time I visited the rest home she was bustling about, singing, dancing, laughing, consoling, reassuring, doing everything she could to achieve her stated aim: “We want this place to be magic for them.”
Who would want to work in a rest home? Who has the dedication to that kind of service, to looking after some of the most vulnerable people in New Zealand, to the daily regime of self-sacrifice? “It was my heart telling me,” Siua said. We met at Servo cafe in Te Atatū and she said she’d never considered rest-home work until her father was too sick for her to look after at her home, and he was transferred to the 42-bed Arran Court rest home in Henderson. Towards the end of his life, she slept on his floor, and got to know the other residents. “And that’s when I started thinking I wanted to give something back to the elderly. It was the right thing to do.”
She’d worked as a cook at Cin restaurant for 17 years, and after her sister came home with bushy hair from an unhappy appointment at a hair salon, she decided to study hairdressing and found work in a salon. That was Siua all over: decisive, almost impulsive. You do something, you go all in. Her first day at Roseridge, though, was tentative. “I kind of didn’t know what to expect. It was very, very challenging. I just looked at the residents and thought, ‘I’d better start getting to know them’.”
Her contract began in March last year – just in time for the stress and anxiety of lockdown. But it also marked a new era at Roseridge. Sabrina Zhou had bought the rest home in September 2019. Things hadn’t been that great in previous years, when it was operating as Evergreen; Ros Taylor’s daughter Sheila had her spies, residents Wai and Dominic, who reported to her that management was serving them cheap takeaways three times a day. “I went in with a roast big enough for everyone and said, ‘This is what they should be eating. Not hotdogs’.”
Siua first came to Roseridge as a student nurse in August 2019. “The residents seemed a bit distant from everybody,” she said. “Dull. It was a bit dull for them . . . Their whole mood is now so different. Sabrina and Iris [Wang, the manager] have made it look like a home, and they’ve made it run really well. They try to please everyone.”
Wai, she said, was a lot happier now. “Really come out of her shell. A totally different person.” Ros, too, was more involved. “When I got here, she just sat in one place. Now we’ve got her walking a bit more, and she loves to sing. She knows all the words to the old songs.” And then there was Dominic, and a particular problem that he presented: he smelled real bad on account of his refusal to shower. David Mills, 72, had thrown a glass of water over him in anger, and called him Dirty Dom to his face.
Dom, who had his head shaved every three months and sometimes grew a beard, was a big man and carried a lot of unclean flesh. Siua put the hard word on him to shower regularly. “That was a big, big challenge,” she said. “One of the biggest. He’d argue with me every time I brought it up. It took a long, long time but he’s now showering three times a week. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. I’m trying to get it to four.”
I asked Dominic about the chances of that happening. We were sitting together in the lounge and the gameshow Tipping Point was on TV. “I don’t know,” he said. “That seems a bit much.” In any case, the subject didn’t interest him. He had other things on his mind or more to the point he had other things in his mind: voices, talking to him, telling him things, frightening him. The voices were coming from the TV.
Dom said one afternoon, “Oh me legs are sore today, Steve. Very sore. I’ve had a few heart attacks over the years. That’s why I try not to push me body too much. I’ve got arthritis, diabetes, schizophrenia, paranoia. But I say to the doctors, ‘it’s not schizophrenia or paranoia. It’s reality.
“It’s been a hard life, Steve, I tell you. I was actually working at the age of 10. That was back in Dublin, I used to drive a horse and cart, selling coal and big logs of firewood. We lived on bread and dripping, and lit candles for light. Then we arrived in New Zealand on St Patrick’s Day in 1961. When I was 12 a bloke came up to me on the street and started chatting to me. ‘Let’s get the bus home together,’ he says. He says, ‘I’ll buy you a nice icecream. I had an icecream and that, then he invited me around to his place and I ended up getting raped by him and his partner, and beaten at the same time. One of them worked in a bakery and the other one was an accountant I think. I never went back. I don’t know what became of them. I look back and think, ‘What a horrible thing’.
“After that happened everything seemed to go downhill. As the years went by I drank everything. I drank kerosene. By 28 I was an alcoholic and I liked to fight. I went to court on a few charges – there was an armed robbery, I can’t quite remember the whole story but I think it was a bank in Takapuna. I remember going there in a car with someone. The judge put me on a police bus at 5 o’clock one night and I ended up at Oakley [psychiatric hospital] for eight years. They let me out once for my grandfather’s funeral. I was in a ward with 20 other men. Bigamists, sodomists, murderers. I’d ended up with brain damage through fighting and they said, ‘We should give your son a lobotomy’, but Mum and Dad put their foot down on that.”
We were sitting in the lounge. There were pikelets for morning tea. Salati Lausiva, 40, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 26, headed outside to paint the gazebo. Ros was asleep in the armchair next to Dom, and next to her Siua clipped the toenails of Trevor Collier, 66. Wai motored through to have a smoke around the front.
The next time I visited, Dom and I sat in the little sunroom while Siua and Salati untangled the Christmas lights. Dom said, “I’m looking forward to Christmas, Steve. But I always get anxious at festival times. I think it’s going to be my last Christmas. It worries me a bit. Will I see Christmas or the New Year?
“I worry a lot, I suppose. I’ve lived with me past, Steve, for quite a few years. I’m Irish, Steve. I used to love a bloody good scrap. I think about them people who I hurt and maybe put in hospital. Some things I remember, some things I don’t. But life’s been good as well. I’ve had some great times. I joined up with the Baptist Mission on the North Shore and they used to take me to Valentines for dinner.”
Rebecca Rihanna walked into the lounge howling. “She has a mental age of about 4,” Iris Wang had mentioned. Siua rushed to her side and gave her two soft teddy bears. The noise woke up Ros, who was asleep in her armchair. She looked around her, and said, “Paper.” Siua fetched her a sheet of A4 and a pen, and Roz wrote something resembling letters. Salati walked outside carrying a large piece of concrete. There were curry sausages and sage pudding for lunch. Wai motored along the hallway with a cup of tea balanced on her walker.
A week later, the Christmas lights were up, and new drapes had been put in the lounge. Salati was vacuuming the carpets; he’d just finished hanging out the washing and digging up a flower garden on the front lawn. He said, “When I finish, I lie down on my bed and watch the TV.” There was cheese and pineapple on toast for dinner. Rebecca walked into the lounge and stared out the window, talking to herself. Gonca Simonovic, 86, demanded a shower. “After lunch,” said Siua. “No!”, Gonca shouted and wagged her finger. She got her way. Wai motored through to sit in the lounge next to Dom.
Dom said, “Like yourself, Steve, I’m a pretty easy-going bloke. But people like their pound of flesh. People get suspicious. I keep away from one or two of the blokes in here. They’re con artists, you know? I’m happy here. Sometimes I’m not. I spoke to my sister last night. ‘Take my advice,’ she said, ‘wherever you go, it follows you around.’
“A psychiatric nurse comes in and asks about me feelings and me thoughts. It’s a bit like with you, Steve. I enjoy our talks. But sometimes I talk to the TV and the radio and they talk back to me. My uncle said to me, ‘You’ve got a good clear mind on you. What happened?’ He used to come and visit me in a concrete room at Oakley. All it had was a baby’s potty to do your poo in, and a pillow. My dad used to visit me every Saturday and bring in cigarettes, fruit, chocolates, and cakes. I was one of the lucky ones. Some of the poor buggers had been there 15 years and they wouldn’t let anybody in to see them. It was a bit like Hogan’s Heroes. It was funny, it was hilarious, it was bad, it was rough and tough.”
I said, “How crazy were you?”
He said, “I was pretty insane, to be honest. I was normal once time and then I became unnormal. That’s my way of putting it. But life’s been good the past 20 years. I stopped drinking and the new medication, Steve, quietens me down. It sedates me a bit. Maybe a bit too much. I take me meds at 7, 7:15, and I’m out like a light when I go to bed at 8:30. I woke up last night and my face was wet. I wondered what it was and I realised I was crying with tears down my face.”
It was Christmas week, and both Rebecca and Gonca were wearing reindeer antlers on their head. It was time for lunch, and Siua helped Ros out of her armchair: “One, two, three! Well done, my lovely.” Trevor was eating his weekly treat: pizza. Salati had cabbage on his fork and his Parkinson’s tremor made it tremble like jelly. Eva Huang, 78, who has dementia, ate lunch in her room. She didn’t want to come out. Sometimes she looked at herself in the mirror, and said, “What are you looking at? You look weird.” After lunch, Trevor and Salati played cards and laughed. Wai motored down to the shops.
Dom survived Christmas and New Year. One day when I visited in January, he’d just come back from having a tumour removed from his back at a surgery in New Lynn. He said, “I got a bloody big hole cut out the size of a 50 cent piece. I’m a little concerned, Steve. The doctor said it might be all right. I might have saved meself from getting cancer. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ he said. ‘We’ll let you know.’
“This morning I was trying to get out of going, to be honest. But I thought, ‘If it’s cancer, it’ll kill me if I don’t get it taken out.’ So I grabbed the bull by the horns.”
I said, “Do you have a fear of death, Dom?”
He said, “It is possible. It is possible. But not so much the fact of dying as how I would die.”
“What’s the worst way you could die?”
“Being eaten by a shark.”
The trip with Iris to New Lynn was the furthest he’d travelled in seven years. I said, “I think you can probably avoid being eaten by a shark.”
“I think so too,” he said. “But you never know. You can have an accident. That’s what I hear from the radio and the TV. That I’m going to snuff it. The people who run the radio and TV programmes, they’re the ones telling me this. I’m like a host to the radio and TV. They are talking directly to me.”
I said, “Dom, I enjoy our talks. You’re an articulate man and you make sense. But there’s not a lick of truth in what you’re saying. It’s just not true.”
He said, “It might be true, Steve, and it might not be true. But I don’t believe that it’s not true. I do believe they are talking to me.”
It was looking like rain. The wind was up, and the noise of it had drowned out the birds. Siua was holding Rebecca’s hands. She said, “What’s my name?” Rebecca told her. Then she asked her, “What’s your name?” Rebecca told her that, too. “Good girl,” said Siua. Nina Warner, 76, was dancing in her pyjamas to a Bryan Ferry song on her iPad. She has 13 of his albums on CD in her bedroom. Salati sat on the floor while Siua injected his Parkinson’s medication. There were hash browns for morning tea. Rebecca sat next to Ros, who took her hand and stroked it. Siua went over to Ros, and they sang together in low voices:
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
A District Health Board 2016 audit of the rest home, when it was operating as Evergreen, was critical of a range of issues. “Lack of staff training around key aspects of care including abuse and neglect… The dietician hasn’t reviewed the menu since 2013. The main cook doesn’t follow the menu and the diary indicates the menu is repeated over two days.”
Sabrina Zhou admits it wasn’t in great shape when she bought the business. ” The atmosphere was very quiet. The residents didn’t talk to each other – just having naps. It was a bit depressing and it looked a bit run-down too. We have tried to make this a happier place.”
She brought in Iris as manager – they’d nursed together at North Shore Hospital – and Shea Siua’s arrival made a big impact. “We are heading in the right direction.” But the rest home is losing money. Five of the 16 rooms are currently empty. She calculates that the business would break even with 13 residents. “Any number above that, I am making money.”
It’s a competitive market. There are seven other rest homes in West Auckland, including Arran Court and Edmonton Meadows in Henderson. Roseridge is on a quiet street with nearby shops, and it’s quaint, small size – Sabrina said her husband suggested she market it as “boutique”, but she thought that was a bit fancy – is an immediate drawcard, with individual care available to residents. More than that, though, is the actual heart of the place.
“It’s been my dream to own a rest home,” Sabrina said, “all the way back to when I was 11 and there was a big earthquake in Japan.” She meant the Kobe earthquake in 1995. “It was on the news and they showed some elderly people who had lost their homes and had nowhere to go. It was so sad. I thought, ‘I should do something when I’m older to look after the elderly’.” She came to New Zealand when she was 18, and started nursing. “When I see this business is for sale, I think, ‘I’ll give it a go to fulfil my childhood dream’. Everyone – my husband, my friends – they all say, ‘Are you sure? It’s just your dream. You’ll be so stressful’. But I thought if I don’t, I’ll regret it my whole life. So I’ll do my best.”
Did she regret buying it? “No. I don’t. I’m losing money but I don’t want to sell. I still see the chance to get better.”
A rest home as a beautiful dream: there was an echo of that when I interviewed a student nurse, Mitra Kancharla, who trained at Roseridge in November. I asked why she wanted rest home work, and she said, “I say to myself, ‘Who will take care of these people?’ This was in my head. So why not me? I want to help people.”
I asked her about the daily self-sacrifice of serving in a rest home, and she said, “The first day it was awful. The smell. When someone is peeing and pooing … My body is not taking it. I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ My husband said, ‘If you don’t like it, just leave. It has to come from the heart’. Second day was not much better. Third day a bit better. I am here seven days now and it’s 90 per cent good. And the residents know my name. Ros always takes my hand, and strokes it. Dominic, Wai, Rebecca, Salati – I look at them, and I say, ‘These are my people’.”
It rained heavily one night in January in West Auckland at 1am, and the next day the Waitākere ranges were smudged with a low white mist.The high temperatures of summer had dropped to 18C. The mood was calm at Roseridge. There was silverside and mashed potato for lunch, and shortbread for afternoon tea. Nina was dancing to Bill Haley. Ros slept in her armchair. I sat with Dom in the lounge and he talked at length about the last time he worked, on a farm: “I would feed the chickens, then wash down the piggery with a high-pressure hose, and we would bury the carcasses of dead sheep. Six pigs were killed every month. We’d cut it all up and make mincemeat and sausages – we had pork chops three times a week, and the chops were that thick.” He held his hands very wide apart. “It were a great life.”
Wai motored to the dairy for a Diet Coke. Nina sat in the dining room, and said to me, “You look like my husband. Same face.” She studied for a BA at Manila University and at 39, a friend advised her to write to a New Zealand man called Trevor, who was looking for a wife. “He brought her to New Zealand in 1982. “I’m lucky to have met him. I like New Zealand very much. I like the schedule of rubbish. It’s regular, Manila, it’s very dirty.” Trevor died in 2004. “After a while I kept falling. I used to call the ambulance. I couldn’t stand. What was wrong? “I don’t know. I think dementia. This is why I come here.”
Siua said that of all the residents, she felt closest to Nina, “We had problems when I started, She doesn’t like to be told what to do. But now she hugs and I love seeing her smile. She’ll say to me, “You’re just so beautiful.” We act like teenagers. That’s how she sees her life.”
Ros woke up, and played with a doll dressed in blue pyjamas. Siua sat with her and asked, “What’s your daughter’s name?” Ros said, “Sheila.” Then she asked her, “What’s your name?” Ros thought about that for a while and asked for paper. Shea gave her a sheet of A4 and a pen. Sheila remembered her mother used to write poetry. That was back in Zimbabwe, where she raised her family on a farm, threw lavish parties, and bought property, including the Danish Embassy. Her mind started going after she shifted to New Zealand. Now, said Sheila, it was as though Alzheimer’s convinced Ros she was living back in Africa. She said her mother was probably the happiest she’d ever been. But she missed her. The person talking in code and riddles wasn’t her mother. I said, “She’s happy, though.” Sheila wept, and said a true but devastating thing in a voice of pure grief, “Happiness isn’t everything”.
Dom fell asleep. He looked very peaceful. I talked with Salati in his bedroom at the end of the hall. He was sitting on his bed. It doesn’t have legs because of his condition. He was taking rare time out from performing one or another of the chores he volunteered to do. He had been a whirlwind at Christmas, putting up lights, painting the gazebo, digging the garden and planting marigolds; but at the Christmas party, which was very lively, with music, a barbecue, a dance performance by the Chinese Association, Salati kept a low-profile. He was anxious that his Parkinson’s would freeze him and he didn’t want anyone to see him in case it happened.
In my visits to Roseridge, I definitely spoke the most with Dom but I felt a strange bond with Salati. I think I was just drawn to his saintliness and decency. He asked questions, he was always wanting to know if I was okay. But he had a dark side. One day I saw him signing his name to a note that Shea had written for him: “I am sorry or locking Rebecca in her room … If I get mad next time I will sit in my room.” He was abashed and a little ashamed when I brought it up. I asked him what happened, and he said, “I angry. I do the bad thing. But it no happen again. I come in my room. Relax. Rest. And no more angry.”
He’d had it rough before he came to Roseridge. He ran away from his uncle’s house in Glendene and lived on the streets for a fortnight, sleeping under a bridge on Henderson. “No good for myself,” he said. “Then they send me here. I want stay here a long time. Is good here.”
He looked very tired sitting on his bed. “I like this place,” he said. “I like this place.” He gave a beautiful smile and then he said, “Steve? I lie down now.” He needed to sleep.
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