£44m Golders Green care campus is looking to broaden its appeal

By Jessica Elgot, June 2, 2011
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Making a meal of it: Users of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Golders Green campus enjoying their lunch at the Michael Sobell Community Centre

Making a meal of it: Users of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Golders Green campus enjoying their lunch at the Michael Sobell Community Centre

It cost £44 million to construct and has state-of the-art welfare and social facilities. But nine months after opening the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl campus in Golders Green, Jewish Care wants the wider community to appreciate that the building is not "just a care home".

With the campus incorporating a community centre, an independent living home for Holocaust survivors and a nursing and dementia care facility, the initial focus has been on providing care and activities for the elderly. The goal is now to encourage wider involvement.

An on-site synagogue attracts 40 "outsiders" and more outreach programmes are planned. It is part of the vision Jewish Care chief executive Simon Morris has had since the idea for the 160,000 square feet campus was hatched five years ago.

"We are not there yet," he admitted. "The challenge is to make this more than a place where people just use the rooms. But it costs a lot of money. We have to make sure people who can afford to do pay for what they use."

A satisfied diner

A satisfied diner

Recreational programmes manager Joel Elias is "trying to develop activities for the wider community. We are looking to install a heimishe internet café for the more religious community around here. They can use the internet but there will be precautions in place to make sure they don't accidentally see unsuitable websites. We also want to start more adult education."

Even now, the hundreds of residents and general users have a plethora of activities to choose from - keep fit, IT skills, pottery, yoga, and political discussions. There has also been heavy investment in new technology. Programmes co-ordinator Fiona Elias reported that iPads were on order "for doing puzzles and reading. We have an 84-year-old woman who comes on Friday who has Parkinson's Disease. She used to love to play tennis but she can't do it anymore. But we have a Wii, so she can sit down and play."

Many of the Michael Sobell Community Centre activities are run by volunteers - for example, fitness sessions and bingo. Velo Metrovitch takes a "balance issues" workshop, which he fits around his commitments as a freelance writer. "We do stretches and boxing exercises, sitting down in chairs. I was made redundant and I spent a lot of money training to learn about balance issues. Jewish Care have bent over backwards to get us the right facilities to do this."

Centre user Vicky Minsky, 81, paints glass in the art room. "I was a ceramicist when I was younger but someone suggested here that I might enjoy painting the glass. That's all I do - that's what makes me happy. Coming here is cheaper than having my own carer. I've got no family living near here. I know a lot of people are in the same situation. If I spot someone's not on the bus in the morning on the way here, we try to find out where they are and check they're OK. These people are my family."

Many of the centre's staff, residents and visitors eat breakfast or lunch in the communal café, which opens out on to the central garden, allowing customers to dine outside on sunny days. Catering on the campus is under London Beth Din supervision.

Mr Morris said the atmosphere at mealtimes had improved dramatically since the new building opened. "It's shown what we can do. We have a centre with a cafeteria which is really buzzing and the room itself is used from 8am until 10pm."

The café is milchig, but traditional Jewish cooking dominates the menu in the care home and the restaurant in Selig Court, the independent living project for survivors and refugees.

Front of house catering manager Charlene O'Keefe said: "We probably do about 60 meals a day in the Michael Sobell centre, but around 200 overall, including the residences. We have to keep the food traditional - it's egg and onion and chicken soup on Friday nights, cholent on Saturdays and salt beef sandwiches and salad on Sundays. We get through 70 chickens on a Friday night and maybe 20 whole salmons a week."

Food was a constant hot topic for residents and visitors, Ms O'Keefe added. "You can't please everybody. But mostly we get compliments."

Residents are not afraid to make their views known to senior staff - the campus also serves as the Jewish Care HQ. "If people aren't happy, they will let me know," Mr Morris said.

"One of the most important things about having built this campus is that I'm in the shop, so is the whole head office. We used to have an office building off-site. Now if things aren't right, people tap me on the shoulder as I go past. We are never going to get things right all the time and we need to learn. Sadly most of my job is not talking to clients. I have to meet managers and make sure what they are doing fits with what we want."

In the 45-bed Selig Court, managers attend tenants' association meetings and report back to head office. "They share ways volunteer sessions can be improved," said Selig Court tenant and property services manager Raphael Bar. "We empower them to build a service right for them."

He is responsible for maintaining the independent living property with a team of office staff, maintenance people and cleaners. "We do inductions for new tenants, teach them about appliances and how to use the building. We have a team of handymen to fix the heating or washing machines. We co-ordinate volunteers to run sessions and activities. We have to deliver a high quality, professional service. We are a landlord, these are our tenants."

Selig Court residents are fiercely independent. All are Holocaust survivors or refugees, who get first preference for places in the modern apartments.

Around 15 are currently on a waiting list and around 100 non-survivors have also expressed interest if a flat should become available, although survivors and refugees will always have priority.

The appeal, residents say, is that the flats do not conform to stereotypical elderly accommodation. Norman Winer, 73, lives with his wife Halina, who hid in Poland throughout the war posing as a Catholic. He was a refugee from the Nazis, who came over with his mother from Germany as a young boy.

"I had an aneurysm a few years ago and I couldn't get up and down stairs," he explained. "I was very apprehensive coming here. I thought: 'What am I doing going to a home at my age?' I still feel that occasionally. I must be the youngest here. But I must be honest, it has grown on me. We eat here two or three times a week. The chef will make anything for you at the last minute. He made me some custard when I fancied it."

Natalie Huss-Smickler - who recently celebrated her 99th birthday at Selig Court - also confessed that the sheltered accommodation took some getting used to. "I came from a big house. It's an adjustment, but I'm very, very happy here. Reaching my age, I didn't want to be alone at night. Now I do socialise with people, we have coffee mornings, films every week - that's when we get together. I don't go to eat every night, I manage to look after myself. Being independent is very important - to have a whole flat. If we need help, we can press a button."

Health issues dictate the living arrangements of residents in the Otto Schiff home, where the oldest resident is 106 and the youngest is 74. All have dementia or nursing needs, but efforts have been made to provide facilities well beyond the typical care home set up, which is greatly appreciated by family members. Outside each of the 54 ensuite bedrooms is a memory box, containing pictures of residents when they were younger and objects important to them.

"It's not just to help the residents," explained Fionnula Baiden, the home's dementia and disabilities specialist. "It's for the staff. They need to know that the people who lived here once led very full and active lives."

There are five units, mostly with 12 residents, allowing the care to be more personal. Residents have their own sensory garden, away from the rest of the campus, and a synagogue.

Volunteers are crucial to the home's operations. Volunteer co-ordinator Carole Marks said: "Volunteers help at meal times, helping to feed people. But they also run activities. We have a volunteer who does a quiz and people come to help residents bake cupcakes. Some do kiddush.

"One volunteer even comes in to talk Farsi to one of the residents, who comes from Iran. We are always in desperate need of volunteers but we have to be stringent."

Ms Baiden added: "We prefer this system of small units because staff and volunteers can be assigned to individuals - they need assistance eating and dressing. Families do need reassuring, they can be very anxious about putting parents in a home. Most have been cared for by relatives before but as dementia advances, that can be impossible. We want to give people here control over their lives, as far as we can."

How Otto Schiff House has helped my mother

Ann Kyte's mother, Fanny Grebenchick, 96, has severe dementia. She has been in Otto Schiff House since it opened, having formerly been in Kay Court for two years.

Mrs Kyte praises the care her mother receives in the centre, but says it has been extremely difficult to come to terms with her condition. "You are ridden with guilt. My mother used to say to me: 'Promise you will never put me in a home'. You do promise and you mean it. But dementia does other things to you. You cannot cope. It is just impossible. When they get to this stage, they don't know what they are doing, they are a danger."

Her mother - a former Watford market trader who sold womenswear - had previously been living in a warden flat. "You start to notice things," she recalls. "She would call straight after I phoned and say: 'Hello darling'. I realised she'd forgotten we'd just spoken. She used to say: 'I'm going mad.' And I'd say: 'No you're not.' But then she forgot to eat. I left food for her, and she would ring and say: 'It was lovely darling.' But it hadn't been touched. The biggest shock was opening the fridge. Food was rotten, I never even realised. She started saying she was being burgled.

"She had a fall and went into the Royal Free. I thought I could take her home, but they made it absolutely clear that I couldn't do it." Now Mrs Grebenchick has 24-hour care,

"I think she recognises me, today, I'm not sure she knows my name. But I would settle for that she just knows I'm her daughter," Mrs Kyte adds. "Sometimes she calls for her mother."

It is important to Mrs Kyte that her mother's dignity is preserved. "She had perfect hair and nails, she was an incredible hostess. I never wanted it to come to this. But she still has her hair done, the staff keep her dressed nicely. That's important. It's better for me, anyway.

"She dribbles, but I still put lipstick on her.

"I want her to be my mum still. That's how I want people to remember her."

Centre has been a 'life-saver'

Betty Pollock, 78, from Hampstead Garden Suburb, is not a Sobell Centre member but credits its activities as a "life- saver" in helping her cope with the Alzheimer's of her husband, Jack. Mr Pollock, 80, was a successful fashion businessman and the couple have been married for 57 years.

"It gives me freedom," she says. "They pick him up and bring him home two days a week and I take him there and back the other day. I'm his only carer otherwise.

"I can't leave him alone. He seems perfectly normal at first but when you speak to him, it can be repetitive. It's 24 hours looking after him, worrying about him. But when he comes here for a few hours, I can get off and play golf and try and take my mind off it. Obviously, I have no idea how bad it could get."

Mrs Pollock admits that the situation "sometimes does get on top of you. But Jewish Care have been really kind for me.

"They ask me how I am coping, and when I get very stressed I can have an Indian head massage here, it's so wonderful. And sometimes Jack invites me down here to meet his friends and listen to his discussions. We have to enjoy the time that we have."

    Last updated: 2:33pm, June 2 2011