Feb 2004 Journal

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Warm touch from OSHA volunteers

Kate sits silently eating her lunch at Osmond House. Two newcomers arrive at her table and begin a conversation about journalism and politics. Kate literally bursts into life. She tells them that she worked as a political journalist and she would really like to write her memoirs. 'If you'll lend me your manual typewriter, I'll have a go', she says. 'I can't get on with the electric machine. When I type, all I can think of is walking sticks.'

A telling glimpse of life at Osmond House, one of the three homes of the Otto Schiff Housing Association (OSHA) that are run by Jewish Care. Outsiders bring in a fresh breath of life. The reaction from the residents is usually warm and instant. At the lunch table, Henry arrives. He is a retired book wholesaler and volunteer befriender and he has come to visit his friend Isabel. The two chat and joke and Isabel beams delightedly.

The hundred residents of Osmond House, Balint House and Leo Baeck House, situated in Bishops Avenue, live in comfortable, beautifully maintained surroundings. The former refugees and Holocaust survivors from Continental and Eastern Europe for whom OSHA homes were originally established now live alongside with British-born residents. Each home runs its own activities programme: at OSHA establishments there is always plenty to do.

But there is a serious problem: most volunteers are now as old as - or in some cases even older than - the elderly residents they dedicate their time to. Befrienders like Henry and the volunteers who help to run activities are part of OSHA's life blood - and it is running thin. Long-serving volunteers like Hilde Davis and Marianne Hasseck are preciously regarded. Hilde, 80, still wheels her trolley shop round each week buying items and administrating finances. Her daughter Susan Packman now tends to the flowers and plants. Hilde and her husband John also organise Friday kiddushim with volunteers from their local synagogue.

Berlin-born Marianne Hasseck, petite, elegant and in her early 80s, runs the Book Club, where residents of all three homes meet up in Balint's bright conservatory. She selects talking books and, as a former head teacher, is expert at stimulating discussion. She has been an OSHA volunteer for 18 years. But many other jobs still need volunteers: for playing board games with residents, leading cultural or current affairs discussion groups, helping to feed the frail at meal times, taking residents for walks, reading short stories to individuals or small groups and speakers of German, Russian or Yiddish.

Rosemary Lewis, volunteer co-ordinator and chair of the house committee at Osmond House, has been an OSHA volunteer for 25 years. 'We all need human contact, even if it's only a short visit for a chat', she says. 'Some people here have no relatives or their families live abroad and have few or no visitors at all.'

Rosemary is helping to lead the drive for new OSHA volunteers. The latest initiative, the Cultural Care Exchange, has seen a team from Jewish Care and OSHA meet recently with groups of newly enrolled students at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Hampstead to discuss sharing cultural interests with OSHA residents. Interested parties are now beginning to get involved.

Meanwhile Leo Baeck resident Dr Fanny Stang, a published author, gives a warm welcome to new befriender Frank, who is a member of a writers' group. The pair have enthusiastically exchanged their respective autobiographies and have plenty to talk about. Another Leo Baeck resident, Eric, would like a befriender to listen to his favourite classical music on tape with him, while Ann and Lillian of Balint House would love fresh faces to chat with, 'about everything and anything, from the East End of London to radio programmes and great-grandsons.'
Judy Miller

previous article:Some rulers of the world!
next article:'Sebastian Flyte, Meet Albert Einstein ...'