Reefton people campaigning for the reopening of their local rest home have taken to social media in a bid to recruit nurses.

Ziman House closed 17 months ago when the West Coast District Health Board packed its 10 residents off to homes in Greymouth and Hokitika, giving short notice to their families and none to the wider community.

Several have since died and although the DHB promised it would reopen in six months, Greymouth administrators now say it can’t reopen because of a nationwide nursing shortage.

Te Whatu Ora’s West Coast Health manager, Phil Wheble, says Ziman House would need six registered nurses to ensure safe staffing levels for all shifts.

“Two of our aged residential care facilities on the Coast are currently closed for hospital-level care – that’s about 40 beds.

“And whether a facility provides that care for one resident or 40 we have to employ 5.4 full-time-equivalent RNs.”

Five people in the past six months have had to leave the West Coast to find the care they need, Wheble says.

Worried Reefton residents – most of them over 60 – set up a health-action group last month to press for the rest home reopening, grill health officials about their intentions and investigate forming a community trust to run it.

So far recruitment efforts for nurses for Reefton have drawn a blank, Wheble told them.

“My first priority is to ensure we have hospital-level care available for the whole West Coast, and six RNs could be supporting either 12 beds in Reefton or 40 beds at one of our other aged-care facilities.”

But if Reefton could somehow find six suitably trained nurses who want to live and work in the small town, they’d be hired for those jobs, Wheble has since confirmed to Newsroom.

Local woman Diana Wilks, who’s a registered nurse, is one of several who’ve taken up the challenge.

“I came to Reefton with my husband because I wanted to live and work here,” she told the meeting.

Instead she was siphoned off by the DHB to work in Greymouth when Ziman House closed, but she’s keen to come back, she says.

On her Facebook page and on a 46,000-strong Bahai page, Wilks, who’s a member of the faith, extols the attractions of the West Coast, links to the official recruitment ads and appeals to fellow nurses to consider a move. 

Blow to elderly

Action group convenor Moira Lockington, a veteran of many previous battles to save hospital services in Reefton, says the loss of the town’s rest home has been a blow to the well-being of many seniors.

“It was a terrible thing they did. The place was staffed at the time, but they used Covid as an excuse.

“You move old people away from their home, their families, their grandchildren popping in to see them every day and you put them in a strange place – they just give up.

“They were crying their eyes out.”

At least three of the 10 Ziman House residents have died since they were moved 80km to Greymouth or 100km to Hokitika, Lockington says.

The deaths were perhaps not unexpected given their ages.

But the move would not have helped their families say.

George Murcott, whose 85-year-old mother Carol was one of the Ziman House residents, says his dad used to visit her daily in Reefton.

“They took her to Greymouth and they put on a car three days a week so he and some of the others could visit their people but that tapered off.

“Mum hated it down there – she just wanted to get back to Ziman,” Murcott says.

Meanwhile, Ziman House is empty after a renovation costing $156,000 carried out by the DHB when the residents were moved.

The old hospital building that houses it was originally built by community subscription, much of it coming from mining companies and miners who ended their days there.

Action group member Helen Bollinger says the hospital has always been an integral part of the community’s culture and the life of the town.

“People are used to walking in any old time to see their family members, kids would go in to see nana after school, have a sing song or whatever – the town has a real sense of ownership of the place and they’ve invested lots of money over the years for improvements.”

No entry

So when Lockington turned up on the doorstep last week with a group of trainee health workers she was hosting – including nurses – she was mortified to be turned away.

“I couldn’t believe it – why would they not want to show it off? We need to promote it if we’re ever going to find the staff and those girls could have been future workers.”

A “please explain” letter published in the local paper prompted a phone call from health officials, Lockington says.

“It’s a public-health facility that this community has supported for a century and I couldn’t believe they’d lock us out.”

But the building been owned for years by the government’s West Coast health authorities in their various incarnations, along with the attached GP practice and rest home. 

Tai Poutini/West Coast Health continues to heat and clean the building and the kitchen is still staffed to supply meals-on-wheels.

It’s all a sad waste of a resource, the action group says.

Wheble and the few remaining Reefton Health staff have plans to remedy that, at least in part.

The Coast health authority is planning to open a day-care service in the building for elderly people and others who might benefit, with a tentative start date of September 1.

The final details are still being hammered out with the union, including how many days a week the programme will run, how many it will employ and what skills will be needed.

“We’re excited by the proposal the staff have put together,” Wheble says.

The action group is less excited.

“It’s a start but it’s a long way from what we actually need,” Lockington says.

“These health reforms were supposed to end the post-code health lottery for rural areas like Reefton.

“All we’ve seen so far is a loss of services and a decrease in well-being for our old people.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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