Highlands House: Reflecting on the past year and looking to the future

By Jaime Uranvosky

The COVID crisis

Before Highlands House entered hard lockdown in March 2020, other measures, like screening visitors, sanitising, and advising social distancing, had been implemented.

Despite these measures, a resident tested positive for COVID in early May and passed away. Between 5 and 12 May, all residents and staff members were tested for COVID and through this testing, asymptomatic residents and staff were identified. A strict quarantine and isolation policy was implemented and all services were provided in residents’ rooms. All residents were then allocated one of several GPs, at no cost to themselves. Strict PPE measures and staff education were also introduced.

During this time, 12 residents and over 30 staff members tested positive. To date, more than 35 residents have tested positive and, sadly, five have passed away. 30 residents have, however, recovered. The success of the above measures is illustrated by the available global data: the projected infection rate in such a facility (currently housing 168 individuals) was 50% and the projected mortality rate was between 20% and 30% (20-40 people).

COVID antigen testing using point-of-care nasal swabs is ongoing for residents (360 tests to date) and staff (350 tests to date). Recently we have introduced antibody testing to identify those residents and staff who have been infected with COVID in the past, yet were not identified by antigen testing. Since the introduction of antibody testing, a further 22 residents who tested negative for antigens have tested positive for antibodies.

For now, residents remain confined to Highlands House except for medical-related visits. Under the current Level 3 Lockdown Regulations, family and friends are not allowed to visit residents. As soon as these restrictions are lifted, visits to the home will be permitted. All services within the home have resumed and residents are encouraged to participate in the life of the home as usual. Until all staff and residents are vaccinated, it is not safe for residents to leave the home freely. It is hoped that Highlands House residents will be eligible for vaccination under the second tier of vaccinations.

Looking to the Future

Currently, the facility’s biggest obstacle is its finances.

Annually, the home runs at a deficit, since around two thirds of the residents are subsidised. Dr Leon Geffen, acting CEO, explains, “Our vision is to provide world-class care despite the financial challenges we are facing. As such, we aim to benchmark ourselves against global care facilities”. Likewise, the home utilises a standardised, internationally used assessment instrument developed by interRAI to assist with care planning.

Additionally, a capitation programme has been implemented, whereby doctors receive fixed monthly fees for residents under their care. All medical records are now electronically stored and Highlands House itself is in the process of going paperless. An assessment is also currently underway, evaluating the quality of all services available to residents.

Once Harris retires, Leon Geffen will become the CEO on a parttime basis, so that he can continue his GP practice and his role as Director of the Samson Institute For Ageing Research. Glen Heneck and Stuart Hendler join the team in the form of non-executive leadership and Delia Kaplan, who has over 21 years of experience at Highlands House, will oversee day-to-day operations.

Harris Burman, Executive Director who is retiring

Farewell to Harris Burman

After serving diligently as the Highlands House Executive Director for over 26 years, Harris Burman will be retiring in 2021.
Clive Rabinowitz, who was Vice-President of the home at the time and was part of Harris’ appointment, remembers how the latter displayed “compassion combined with the ability to lead” – this is what made Harris stand out from the rest. Clive adds, “He inspired loyalty among his staff and he always had the greater community in mind”.

Indeed, all who witnessed Harris’ extensive and tireless work at Highlands House praise his organisational skills and the countless improvements he made to the home physically, structurally and in terms of the quality of services offered to residents. He introduced daily mandatory meetings with staff and divided the management of the home into different areas — these changes helped to make Highlands House into the world-class facility that it is today. As such, Leon Geffen says, “He committed fully to improving the quality of life of the residents”.

Bernard Osrin recalls how his late father, Eliot, credited the transformation of Highlands House and its services to Harris. Indeed, it was through him that so many of the renovations occurred. Harris’ innovations included upgrading all facilities, constructing a lifestyle centre and bettering the food quality. Bernard adds, “He had a very good relationship with residents because he had quite a soft side to him – he’s a humanitarian… He didn’t see it as a job; he came from the point of view of care”.

Harris’ character and kindness are lauded by all. Delia Kaplan shares, “He always made himself available to staff and provided guidance. He was very caring and committed to the residents and is a gentle, kind, considerate person. Highlands House is Highlands House because of Harris’ invaluable contribution, and both the residents and the staff are thankful for his decades of service”.

Barbara Friedman, PA to Harris Burman

Farewell to Barbara Friedman

Barbara Friedman, Personal Secretary to Harris Burman, will be retiring after 18-and-a-half years at Highlands House.

Colleagues will remember her warmth and her enthusiasm and willingness to get involved. Harris particularly valued Barbara’s ability to act as a communication filter, directing people to the correct channels so that issues could be effectively resolved. He also praises her generosity of spirit, evinced by the many evenings she spent on behalf of the home volunteering on UJC-organised telethons to raise community funds.

Harris says, “I would often ask Barbara when I passed her desk, what she was mumbling about. The answer came a few months later when a sign she’d found read: ‘If you see me speaking to myself, know that I am asking someone for good advice’.

Delia Kaplan, Deputy Director of Highlands House, says, “With her sense of humour and lively spirit, Barbara engaged with many residents and was very well liked by all. She engaged with many staff and was always there to assist family members. Her warmth and vitality will be missed, and we wish her well in her new chapter of life”.

Lydia Martin, former manager of operations, who passed away

Tribute to Lydia Martin

Lydia Martin, beloved employee of 33 years at Highlands House, passed away in December 2020, aged 54.

Lydia joined the Highlands House team as a clerk in her early twenties, later becoming an assistant to the then newly formed Operations Department around 25 years ago. Once the previous Head of Operations left, she manned the post before formally became the Manager of Operations in December last year.

The response from her colleagues is unanimous: Lydia was gentle, reliable, compassionate, diligent, dedicated and meticulous. She is remembered as an invaluable member of Highlands House and for always putting residents first. She was a woman of her word who had an elephant’s memory, wrote down every detail, and who was incredibly hardworking.

Lydia oversaw various sectors, including housekeeping, laundry, reception, domestics, vehicles and the Maintenance Department. Maria Jonathan, who worked with Lydia for about 30 years, says, “The thing about her was respect and her gentle manner – really a lady of character. Residents loved her. Whether it was something in her private life or something in Highlands House, she had the same high standard”. Ursula Martin, another colleague of Lydia’s adds, “What an amazing person. Very thorough. She really left a legacy”. Lydia is deeply missed by all.

Maria Jonathan, receptionist at Highlands House

Staff member reflections

The past year has been an adjustment for residents and staff members alike. Here, some of the home’s employees share their experiences.

Joan de Villiers Before joining Highlands House as a nurse last year, Joan worked in ICU for two decades. Joan says, “I love that I can form meaningful relationships with the residents and my colleagues. What I really enjoy are the different aspects of nursing here. At the moment here, there is the testing of residents being done to see who got infected and even though they were asymptomatic they tested positive; I find that really interesting”.

Maria Jonathan Maria has been the receptionist at the facility since 1988. For Maria, one of the most rewarding elements is observing the home’s continuing metamorphosis. She explains, “From walking into a gloomy Highlands House with black walls with all these plaques, and now you have a brighter, more cheerful approachable Highlands House”. Maria is proud of the services offered to residents and says, “It’s really an honour; I love working here. The team of managers has really pulled us through and done an exceptional job”.

Neil Smith Neil started off as a handyman at the home and initially saw the job as temporary. However, 27 years later, he is the Maintenance Manager and runs a team of four, after continuously broadening his skillset. Neil is responsible for everything from plumbing, tiling, bricklaying, painting, plastering, to electrics. He says, “I’ve learnt a lot. My knowledge in the maintenance field has grown since coming here. There are the ups and the downs as Manager but it’s been a good experience”.

Coleen Jansen Coleen is the Unit Manager on the Special Care Unit and has worked at Highlands House for 27 years. She began as a carer and loves the sense of community. For Coleen, the early days of COVID were the most overwhelming. She explains, “We had to think creatively to keep residents stimulated because they couldn’t go to the lounges or the garden. I think management did a very good job of supporting us and educating us about how to cope with our residents”.

Dave Myers, resident and current Chairman of the Residents Committee

Life in Highlands House: residents’ perspectives

COVID has certainly had an impact on life at the home; however, two residents explain how they‘ve made use of their time during the pandemic and their thoughts on the measures taken.

Jenni Burnett has been at Highlands House for around nine years and has served on the Residents Committee for almost as much time, including two terms as Chairlady. She also runs the library and carts books. Jenni has found solace in Skype and speaks to family members and friends across the world, such as in the UK, the US and even in Hong Kong. She explains, “Skyping is my therapy. I’ve been skyping since last year and only stopped during lockdown, when we had to stay in our rooms. I’ve become part of everyone’s family all over the world”.

Jenni’s favourite aspect of Highlands House is the care. She says, “Care can encapsulate lots of stuff. I’m here, I’m safe, I’m looked after. We can’t ask for more.”

Dave Myers, a five-year resident who is currently Chairman of the Residents Committee, most values that he can maintain his independence. Over the years, he has completed about ten online courses and also paints.

Dave was one of the first residents to contract COVID last year but, despite being in the high-risk category, remained entirely asymptomatic.

While Dave enjoys more solitary activities, he explains that morale has taken a dip for many since residents are unable to visit family members or to receive visitors. However, he explains that since activities like movies and music sessions have resumed, there are always things for residents to do.

Dave says, “I can’t praise the management enough. Look, they’ve made decisions that we didn’t like but they made decisions we didn’t like for our benefit. Every single decision they make is the right one. I can only be positive about this place; I don’t believe that there’s anywhere that
can compare”.

Highlands House www.highlandshouse.co.za

• Published in the print edition of the March/April Pesach 2021 issue. Download the March/April 2021 issue PDF here.

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