When Ari Seirlis invited me to provide a regular column on care givers and care giving for Rolling Inspiration it was unanimously decided that the column should be named “Ida’s Corner”, in memory of Ida Hlongwa who provided care for Ari for more than twenty years before she passed away in December of 2010.

I am honoured to share with you, in Ari’s own words, the incredible story of an incredible woman, Ida Hlongwa, the inspiration behind this column.

I broke my neck in a diving accident in August 1985. I was 23 at the time and this was never part of my plan, my dream or my future existence. After six months of rehabilitation, three months at Addington hospital and three at the former HF VERWOERD rehabilitation Hospital in Pretoria, I was sent home, and my life as a C5 quadriplegic began in earnest.

I am totally dependent on the services of a care attendant for my personal daily needs. Over the years, I have managed to do quite a bit for myself, but always with a bit of help.

At the time, our family was lucky to have the services of our loyal domestic helper, Edna Nyoka, who had been with us since 1969. She, together with my parents, gave me superb support and care attending for the next three years before I moved out on my own. Edna continued with my parents and I employed my own care attendants.

There were tough times. Some care attendants would just disappear, others would help themselves to whatever was available and there were times of anxiety and unstable support. Then, by chance, I was introduced to Mrs Ida Hlongwa. She had been a domestic helper to some families whom I knew. I had known her husband before my accident but had never met her.

Tell me about Ida; what stood out to you about her? Tell me about your relationship, how it developed and what she came to mean to you.

She could cook superbly, her manners were amazing. She was strong, wise, friendly and compassionate. She used to get me up in the morning, assist me during the day, do the grocery shopping, clean the house, do the cooking, and put me to bed again - sometimes late at night, after I’d had a number of refreshments!

She came to my wedding, she consoled me after my divorce, she celebrated my birthdays with me, she came on many holidays with me and she was part of many family celebrations. We travelled all over the country together and she clocked up more Voyager miles than many!

I loved the experience of sharing the dreams and goals of her children. I went to her daughter’s graduation, when she graduated as a nurse, and had many days of fun with her son. I mentored and motivated another daughter of Ida’s and spent many hours talking about South African matters with her husband. We were together during sad times too. I attended the funeral of her husband and two of her children, and we grieved at these times together.

It was just Ida and I for almost 20 years, until I changed my routine and brought in a second care attendant to support her. I had the most amazing experience with the most amazing woman for 20 years. Ida was loved by my family and all of my friends.

What about incidents that stand out? Fond Memories?

There is so much to say about Ida, about the 20 years she cared for me for as a care attendant. Some funny things and some sad things.

I always took Ida along to meetings I had with important people and celebrities. I remember once, I had a meeting with the then Minister of Labour, Mr M Mdlalana, at Parliament. The Minister greeted her with a hug and said to her; “You must be happy to meet the Minister”, to which she replied; “I have been working with Ari for many years, and have met more ministers than you, Sir.”

Ida would often ask to sit in the audience when I was making a speech, and would take the liberty, afterwards in a quiet time, of critiquing me and giving her opinion, which was often extremely valuable. When I got it right she would say “You are a speech maker!” and smile.

We travelled a lot. So often in fact, that when we travelled through domestic airport terminals, the people working at the airports would call out to her, “Mama Ida”! She would respond and smile. To this day, I'm sure I still hear the echo of her name being called out when I travel.

Ida obviously was much more than a care giver. She sounds more like a Personal Assistant cum confidant and also, a best friend?

Ida’s support was significant in my life. She was wise with my household budget and advised me if she thought I was doing things incorrectly and could be doing better. She allowed me into her family, to participate in educating the children and to share some of her family’s activities. I think it is most important to get involved with the family of your carer and show that this is a partnership. She was, first and foremost, an excellent mother, then a very loyal care attendant and thirdly, a friend to me, my family and friends.

Ida would spot a red, pressure mark on my body a mile away and make it disappear in a few days. She would prepare in advance for every trip I took, and make sure that we never ran out of anything ... including a sense of humour!

She taught me that there needs to be a powerful relationship between you, the person who needs to be cared for, and your carer. Trust and honesty have to be developed. The words “please” and “thank you” have to be used in abundance. It is important to identify if your carer is tired, or has fatigue, and to give your carer the space and time to recover and re-energise.

Ari, I can see that you are becoming emotional. Let’s conclude with a few thoughts in closing.

I am a lucky man to have had the services of Ida Hlongwa in my life. I learnt so much from her. I do wish I could have done some things differently and I know she would probably forgive me for that. Ida gave a huge chunk of her life to myself and my family, my needs, my dreams and my achievements. There were many of my friends who begged her to write a book, but that was not to be - thank goodness!

Ida passed away in December 2010. The day of her death and her funeral are two of the saddest days of my life. There are many people who will remember this wonderful woman, may her legacy and mannerisms live on in the lives of others who provide such a valuable service for quadriplegics.

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