Fiona Leckerman visited Jewish Care to find out about the selfless work of its volunteers – but, in doing so, found a story much closer to home

Fiona Leckerman aged 11 with her late grandfather, Monty Murray, who was helped by Jewish Care

Fiona Leckerman aged 11 with her late grandfather, Monty Murray, who was helped by Jewish Care

When 16-year-old Matthew Plaskow walked into Monty Murray’s flat for the first time, he had no idea that he was about to forge one of the most significant friendships of his life. Matthew was on a year-long community service placement organised by his school, Haberdasher’s Aske’s, but what began as a voluntary service quickly became an enjoyable part of Matthew’s week as the elderly gentleman and teenage boy became firm friends.

Matthew Plaskow as a 16-year-old volunteer

Matthew Plaskow as a 16-year-old volunteer

It was a friendship that exceeded their expectations as Matthew stayed in touch with Monty during his gap year in Israel and in to his first year at university. It even impacted on Matthew’s career ambitions as, following discussions with Monty, he decided to pursue a career in law.

This was not something Matthew’s mother, social worker Paula Plaskow, envisaged when she suggested the initial meeting, but her son, who is now 30 and a lawyer, provided Monty, then 90, with intellectual stimulus and companionship, while Monty became the quasi-grandfatherly figure in his life. Monty was my late grandfather and, as 14 years have passed since that first meeting, I had all but forgotten about the charming young man my grandfather frequently talked about. However, while researching this story about Jewish Care volunteers, I was lucky enough to meet Paula, who immediately reminded me of that special relationship between my grandfather and her son. “Your grandfather encouraged Matthew in a very subtle way,” recalled Paula fondly. “My son was inspired by him and still talks about him today. It was a very reciprocal relationship that my son got so much out of and has helped shape his life.”

I was deeply moved to hear that my own grandfather had such an impact on someone’s life, but, as I discovered while visiting the incredible and inspiring Jewish Care building in Golders Green, Monty and Matthew’s magical relationship was just one of many that are prompted by the social workers who are part of the extensive work the organisation does. “We are all about trying to engage people in a meaningful life,” says Jackie Kramer, team manager in the central community social work team. “That meaningful life could be a visit, it could be just having a conversation; it need not be something big, it is all about that individual and that moment.”

Paula is team manager of the north-west community social work team and both she and Jackie are keen to dispel the notion that Jewish Care is only about residential care homes. They call the process a full circle of support; once a person calls the helpline, which works as a point of access, they will be able to get the full support of Jewish Care. “We have wrap-around care that is quite unique to the Jewish community,” says Paula.

In fact, when Andy Burnham, the then shadow health secretary visited last year, he was amazed by what the organisation does and questioned how the Jewish Care model could be replicated throughout local authorities.

Jackie explains that it is not just its response to applications but that “we are working with the community so the community can support the individual. There was this realisation that with the complexity of people’s needs in the community that Jewish Care cannot do everything, but offering our expertise plus the backup of the organisation to local synagogues and communities, we are well placed to provide that support network.”

Jackie clarifies: “In social work, this is what we call integrated care or multidisciplinary care, which is a partnership with the individual, group, local authority and supporting a person.” She also insists: “We don’t want to support a person when there is a crisis; we want to support them before they get to get to that point.”

Carer Sandrine with care home resident Annie

Carer Sandrine with care home resident Annie

The recent Care Act, which came into force on 1 April, underpins well-being and prevention ahead of a crisis. “Those conversations are very difficult to have with the person you love and care about,” says Jackie, “To have the option of a third person sitting in and supporting them through that enables them to make important decisions.”

The best way to illustrate this is through a case history and Jackie tells me about an elderly man in his 90s who was in need of residential care. “The family contacted me and, when I met with him, I discovered what interested him and he told me his life story. I began to find out what was important to him.

Through my journey with him, I was able to support him in multiple ways, from helping to move into a warden-aided flat, to providing him with a special telephone so he could hear his relatives when they called. We also had the occupational therapy team deal with his mobility issues.”

Jackie even suggested he visit the Jewish Care building and volunteer, where he is now able to share his history in their reminiscence groups. A level of trust was gained to such a degree that Jackie was able to discuss his end of life wishes. “He told me he felt honoured and privileged to have such nice accommodation,” says Jackie “But at no point did he feel that I was doing any of that for him, he was making all the decisions himself.”

This is a recurrent theme at Jewish Care, which provides volunteers to individuals who in turn organically transform into volunteers themselves giving them purpose. Paula relates an example of this, with a septuagenarian, who sadly lost his wife to ovarian cancer.

“Jewish Care were able to support him through his wife’s treatment and then the grieving process. He started to come to the Sobell Centre and, as his confidence grew, he developed a new service in his own synagogue to help other bereaved men. I thought that, in itself, was supremely inspirational.”

Paula and Jackie have so many heart-warming stories about people they have supported, from a lady who was a humanist and wanted a humanist cremation, to another woman who loved the colour purple so much that the care home painted her walls in the exact shade. When the woman’s dementia became too severe, the carers continued to dress her in purple and surrounded her with her favourite colour. “It was such a little thing, “ says Paula. “But we were able to provide her with what made her happy.”

With five teams in Hertfordshire, Redbridge, Barnet, central London and Hackney, as well as a Holocaust survivors team, the social workers join forces to provide integrated care. Paula explains that their ability to “co-ordinate and facilitate as well as advocating for long periods of time,” sets Jewish Care apart.

Paula, who also heads the palliative are team, says: “It’s a privilege and a complete mitzvah for me to be on someone’s journey to end of life, especially if you can help the family, too.” The dedication of the Jewish Care teams is humbling, but Neil Taylor, director of care and community services, sums it up efficiently. “The ethos of our work is to give an individual the feeling that their community is looking after me,” he says. “We bring people together, making the shidduch between the volunteer and the clients.”

And it is apparent when I finally get to talk to Matthew that in befriending my grandfather, he gained much more than he expected, which further highlights the very real ‘care’ in Jewish Care.