When Helen Courtney first moved into her spacious apartment at Uniting AgeWell’s Manningtree Hawthorn she thought, “Great – this suits our needs.” She had no idea how prophetic those words would become.
Now, two-and-a-half years later, Helen, 84, freely admits her ground floor flat with its beautiful garden is so much more than home to her. It represents a community of friends and a continuum of care that has helped her every step of her journey and will continue to do so moving forwards.
Wind back the clock to March 2020, and Helen and her late husband, John, moved into the brand-new, upmarket independent retirement living complex. They loved their two-bedroomed apartment on sight – especially the sliding doors from both bedrooms and the lounge into the garden, bringing the outside inside.
Helen and retired accountant John, set about adding their personal touches to the garden. Outdoor furniture, a lemon and lime tree, and pots growing parsley, chives and thyme which Helen, who is a good cook, uses to whip up gourmet dishes.
John, who Helen describes as a “people-person and an extrovert”, started Happy Hour drinks on a Friday evening as well as the Men’s Group and the couple got on with the business of enjoying themselves. They made friends, and the train and tram were nearby for a short trip to the city whenever they wanted it.
They watched movies at Manningtree cinema, Helen joined the book club, started playing table tannis and they found their days were busy having fun. Even when COVID hit they felt supported, especially when the café downstairs started selling essentials like milk, butter and bread. And they were grateful they were not rattling around on their own in their former large family home.
Then John, who was five years older than Helen, started to have health problems. He suffered a severe stroke and was partially paralysed, so Helen became his full time carer. He was also coping with diabetes.
Mid-pandemic, Helen had a fall and broke her arm. And her first thought was, “How can I possibly look after myself as well as John now?” So John went into respite care at Uniting AgeWell’s Hawthorn Community aged care facility which abuts the Manningtree and Helen used the time to get better and visit him every day.
Later on Helen, who is an asthmatic, had another fall – and once again John went into care to offer her some respite. He enjoyed his stays there enormously and said the food was great and the staff were caring.
Then John was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Helen nursed him until he went full time into care and passed away on 5 August this year. A significant number of the residents at Manningtree Hawthorn attended his funeral.
And leading up to and since his death, Helen has felt enveloped in their kindness and concern. After 62 years of marriage, John’s passing has left a gaping hole in her life, but the friendship of the community offers her comfort.
Helen goes to Manningtree’s gym, is a regular at the cinema, involved in lots of groups – and has an instant close circle of good friends literally on her doorstep.
“I’ll be having coffee with a friend in the café, and someone else will join us and say ‘hey Helen, won’t you pop in for a glass of wine and nibbles at my apartment at 5pm?’ And so I do, and we end up laughing and chatting for hours,” Helen explains. “Some of the ladies here are also widows and it’s good to be able to share what I’m going through with them.”
And Helen is delighted that the friendship and camaraderie is right on her doorstep. “If I was living alone at our old family home now, organising a get together with friends would require endless phone calls and a lot of arranging and transport to get there. Now much of the socialising is impromptu and spontaneous! It’s great.”
Helen is also grateful that her five children and eight grandchildren don’t have to worry about her being lonely. The spare bedroom in her apartment also means family can stay over – and big family events are still going to continue as usual. At one stage, she and John entertained up to 27 people at a BBQ in their spacious garden area.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” she says bluntly. “I may need to go into Hawthorn Community one day – and that’s okay too. I know I will continue to get the help I need with Uniting AgeWell in my corner.”