'They miss their families': How Covid-19 left elderly cut off from loved ones

21 March 2021 - 00:00
Amy Green says she understands why Covid-19 protocols were necessary.
Amy Green says she understands why Covid-19 protocols were necessary.
Image: Khaya Ngwenya

For months, silence reigned in pensioner Amy Green’s tiny Durban flat.

She wept sometimes as she yearned for family Sunday lunches, sleepovers and hugs from her nine grandchildren and three children.

In March last year, when Covid-19 struck and the lockdown was imposed, Green, 64,  and  other residents of care homes run by The Association for the Aged (Tafta), one of SA’s biggest groups caring for the elderly, were restricted from having physical contact with their families to safeguard them against the virus.

With the lockdown now at level 1, visits have resumed. 

The elderly are regarded as one of the groups most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but some residents of Tafta facilities and their families complained that the no-visits rule and other limitations on their movements were a  violation of their  rights.

Much of their ire was directed at Tafta CEO Femada Shamam, who had to make the painful decision to impose the ban on contact visits for the more than 5,000 residents of the association’s facilities.  

Shamam acted following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement a year ago of a hard lockdown.

“We put out a message on our social media and to our homes immediately,” she said.

“And thus, our challenge to maintain the safety of our elders against a backdrop of a ‘conscientised’ democracy, as South Africa  is known to have, began.”

Despite the stringent measures, several Tafta residents contracted Covid and some died.

As the months of lockdown dragged on, Tafta sought ways to alleviate the emotional suffering caused by the strict protocols.

One such initiative was the use of visiting pods, first used at care homes for the elderly in the UK, when lockdown restrictions were first eased last year.

The pods allow visitors to see and talk to residents through large windows, with speaker systems providing sound.


• 5,000 - The estimated number of residents in facilities run by The Association for the Aged

• 9 - The number of months last year that pensioner Amy Green had no physical contact with her family

 Green  — who suffers from  hypertension and a chronic lung condition — said she had not regarded the Tafta curbs as a violation of her  rights but as a necessary precaution.

In December last year, three days before Christmas, she saw her family again for the first time in nine months, a reunion she described as “very emotional”.

“We were in a very hard lockdown but it was for our own benefit,” Green said.

“My family used to phone, but phoning is not the same as seeing them in person, and giving the grandchildren a hug and a kiss … At the end of that phone call you are missing them even more.”

Nomsa Gxotiwe, who runs the Ithemba old-age home in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, has had her residents in lockdown since March last year.

“Covid-19 has made things very difficult for the residents. They miss their families,” she said.

“I have allowed visits recently but it happens outside and there is social distancing. We are a small home and I have struggled because sanitisers are expensive and some of the elderly who have dementia flush their masks down the toilet, so I have to keep replacing them.

The pods allow visitors to see and talk to residents through large windows, with speaker systems providing sound

“I haven’t allowed my residents to go out. It’s been difficult but they do understand it is for their safety. I put these measures in place and we have no cases of Covid thankfully.”

Gxotiwe has allowed residents in her care to visit a nearby park to get fresh air and exercise.

“I first assess if there are people there. When it is empty we sanitise and our old people spend a bit of time there about three times a week.”

Resident Virginia Ramaota, who has been living at Ithemba for three years and is a diabetic, said she sometimes felt frustrated by the restrictions.

“I am tired of it but I have to follow rules because I don’t want Covid,” Ramaota said.

“I miss my children. But they come to visit sometimes. This Covid is hard, but I don’t want to get it, so I stay at home.”

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