Editor’s eye

My decision to select Whare Aroha for this issue’s ‘snoop around’ could possibly be seen as a lazy choice, given that it is a mere five minutes’ walk from the Rotorua Energy Events Centre, the venue for this year’s NZACA conference. Convenience aside, Whare Aroha is undoubtedly in a fantastic location, within a stone’s throw of the city centre, the lakefront, and Government Gardens.

Having allowed unnecessary ‘getting lost’ time, I find myself at Whare Aroha ahead of schedule. I like being early – sitting in the reception area pre-snoop, observing the facility as it goes about its business, is usually more telling than the interview and guided tour itself.

The waiting area at Whare Aroha is in the corridor. From here I am privy to the banter of the reception staff, which is entertaining in itself. Residents wander past me sporadically, one stopping to ask me if I’m applying for a job here, another commenting on the stunning and fragrant vase of lilies beside me. Visitors come in and out: grandchildren, children, spouses – all are greeted enthusiastically by the reception team, and I start to feel like I truly am in a home, rather than a facility.

While it has been recently redecorated in a tasteful palate, it is clear that Whare Aroha, as a building, was built a long time ago as a nurses’ home for Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Unlike modern facilities, there are no ensuites, and many rooms have been converted from other uses rather than purpose-built.

Manager, Thérèse Jeffs, makes no apology for the building. “We’re not a flash building, we’re not The Ritz,” she says. “Our focus is on The Ritz care.”

Thérèse’s care philosophy hinges on the Eden alternative model, which is based on the core belief that ageing is part of our life journey, rather than a period of decline. Her main goal is to create a homely environment, and in the four months she has been managing Whare Aroha, Thérèse and her new management team have brought about many changes to achieve a feeling of homeliness.

The garden has had an overhaul, and while a blustery Rotorua day prevents me from having a good nosy, I can see that it has been beautifully done. The interiors have all been repainted, with hues of chartreuse, burgundy, and a pretty duck-egg blue appearing throughout, with complementing furniture. I sense the renovations have been a big deal for staff and residents alike.

“I think you need to increase our insurance ’cause it’s so flash now,” says resident Chris to Thérèse as we pass through a newly redecorated lounge.

Then there are the resident animals. Among the pets is Monty, a white Chihuahua-Maltese cross, who is doted on by the residents. I meet Monty in the Manaia Suite (dementia unit), where he spends most his time. Today, he is wearing a pink bandana, which is causing some consternation among the residents. After all, Monty is a boy.

The dementia unit is home to 21 residents; there are also 21 rest home beds and 36 hospital beds. Although the building itself was built in the 1950s as the nurses’ home to the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Whare Aroha as it stands today was established as a trust in the late 1980s because the public hospital no longer provided geriatric care. Part of the Rotorua Continuing Care Trust, Whare Aroha caters for people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and is known to care for those with physical disabilities under 65 years as well.

While Thérèse says many families are supportive and involved and like to visit frequently, she says they do see many sad instances where residents are literally dropped off at the door and never visited by their family. I get the impression that this only strengthens her resolve to provide high-quality care and a place they can truly feel at home.

Forty per cent of the residents are Māori, which is interesting as Māori people typically don’t like to put their elders into care. Thérèse explains that this is changing, that as Māori are now living longer, whānau are becoming more aware that they can’t always provide the level of care needed, especially for those with dementia.

The Māori presence at Whare Aroha adds depth to the home. One resident teaches the other residents and the staff te reo Māori, introducing new words and phrases. “He called me his worst student,” laughs Thérèse.

Formal visitors are greeted by a pōwhiri/whakatau and the karanga has been led by a determined 95 year old lady; Thérèse described it as moving.

Interestingly, Māori dementia residents sometimes revert to speaking te reo Māori, and there are staff who can converse with them. Thérèse tells me they also had a German lady who has reverted back to her native tongue, which presented more of a challenge for staff!

While fluency in all languages is certainly not an expectation, Thérèse places huge emphasis on getting the staffing right. She is keen to create a participative environment among the staff.

Certainly, they are a vibrant bunch, leading the residents in all manner of adventures. She shows me videos and photos on her iPhone of activities ranging from Elvis impersonations to line dancing to horse rides in the garden. “The activities are nearly always inspired by a resident’s interests,” she says, in part to explain why a horse visited the home!

Thérèse says Whare Aroha will eventually have to move, as the home sits on land owned by Pukeroa Holdings, which has plans to redevelop the site. To move to a new location on the site will inevitably cause upheaval. However, it will also give the chance to build a new facility. Thérèse says Whare Aroha will have responsibility for the design of the new facility – a challenge I think she will relish.

Regardless of where the building is or what it looks like, Whare Aroha is sure to retain its welcoming and friendly feel – of that I am certain.

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