Hilda Gerrard

Hilda Gerrard

Deborah Circurel meets the residents at the UK’s oldest Jewish Care home and discovers that they are not only full of energy and enthusiasm, but also experts on Twitter and Skype…

No one knows Edinburgh House better than Hilda. For 50 years, she has worked at the care home, getting to know each and every resident – until she became one herself.

Hilda Gerard is the sort of elderly lady I would like to be one day. Dignified, cheerful and beautifully-dressed, her make-up immaculate and hair freshly blow-dried, she sits on an armchair, her hands neatly folded, and tells me about her rich life working at the place that became her home.

She has seen life behind the scenes, connected with countless residents over the years, truly immersed herself in the life and soul of Edinburgh House. Hilda eventually joined as a resident after an accident when she fell badly at home.

“From 4 in the afternoon until 9 the next morning, I desperately tried to stand up, to reach the phone to call for help, but to no avail,” she recalls.It was her hairdresser, who had been visiting every Friday for 27 years who found Hilda before it was too late.

“If it wasn’t for her, I would be dead,” Hilda says matter-of-factly before moving on to more pressing matters such as the news headlines and what’s for lunch? “Do you know how old I am?” teases Hilda, but then refuses to say.

I am about to guess 80, or possibly 85, but refrain from answering as I’ve been told that the home has a number of centenarians who physically and mentally belie their years.

“What’s your secret?” I ask sheepishly. “You must know them already,” she laughs. ”They’re all in books.” I beg her for some tips. “I just keep myself busy,” she smiles.

Phyllis Binstock

Phyllis Binstock

Keeping oneself busy seems to be the secret not just for Hilda, who still helps out with the running of the home, but many of the other residents at Edinburgh House and the home manager Paula Peake tells me about the countless activities that take place there: Purim parties, Chanukah singsongs, wedding parades, piano recitals, school visits and – the highlight of the year – a 5-day holiday.

Strikingly, none of the carers are Jewish – but they totally absorb themselves in the culture, running lively parties for each festival, observing Shabbat so that no electricity is used, and keeping the kitchen fully kosher. Edinburgh House is the oldest Jewish charity in the UK, dating from 1747.

Despite this formidable history, the attitude is relaxed, as I learn walking around and meeting its residents, who sit chatting, reading and playing cards. I visit bedrooms personalised with quilts from home, paintings on the wall and bedside photographs.

There are four lounges, divided by varying levels of dementia but in each one, I’m greeted by smiles. I meet fascinating people: Seymour, an ex-GP who tells me all about his family, an inquisitive lady named Phyllis who shows me the books she’s reading, imploring me to read them too; Devorah another big reader never seen without her lipstick and Leewho makes a point of choosing the appropriate jewellery to match an outfit.

Then there’s Katy, a distinguished-looking lady, younger than the other residents, who tells me this is her first visit. Paula later reveals that Katy suffers from severe dementia, and comes each weekend for respite, while residing with her husband the rest of the week. But, despite her illness, Katy helps out, laying the table, washing up or folding tablecloths. She feels needed.

Edinburgh House’s respite policy is helpful for families who are unsure about care homes, or who are unable to look after their parents temporarily. “It doesn’t look five star,” a visitor tells me, “but that’s the least important thing. What matters is that you know your parents will be looked after.” Paula criticises the government’s insistence that “home is best” for the elderly, explaining that it’s not that way for everyone. “It causes family breakdowns,” she says.

“The constant emphasis on ‘home is best’ escalates people’s guilt.” It is hard to provide care for an elderly parent when you’re not equipped to do so, more

Devorah Wolkenfeld

Devorah Wolkenfeld

so when they have dementia or are being cared for by someone as elderly or infirm as them. At least you know that at Edinburgh House, your relative has all the facilities they need, with nurses and medical supplies onsite.

But it is heart-breaking to think of moving to a home and leaving your partner behind. That’s why Edinburgh House also has sixteen flats where partners who don’t require the constant care of a home can still live close by their spouse.

So many residents have lead fascinating lives and the Holocaust survivors, former stage actresses, pianists and antique dealers who make up the group are more like guests at a fashionable soirees. The histories add much to the home, but it is the informal, familial atmosphere that strikes you.

“I love it here,”says Paula who tells me about staff who have stayed for twenty years, which is “unheard of for a care home”. “The atmosphere keeps the staff, and the staff keep the atmosphere” she adds and the mutual respect between carers and residents is plain to see.

Paula clicks with her residents by treating them as regular people. “They are of the age where all social niceties have washed away,” she adds. “They tell it like it is, fighting over the TV! There are 51 residents, so 51 different ways of making chicken soup. You can’t please everyone all the time.”

Paula, who is expecting a grandson, is constantly asked as we walk around: “Any baby news yet?” One lady has specially crocheted a blue hat. “They tell me about their families,” Paula explains, “and I tell them about mine.”

She enjoys a close relationship with her residents, completing crosswords together, explaining the intricacies of Google and Twitter, and helping them use Skype to speak to family in faraway countries. It’s clear that, as one resident’s daughter wrote in her thank-you letter, “this is not just a home – it is their home”.