When 59-year-old Tapaita Salakielu started her adult life, she never imagined she would be a professional caregiver. "I liked retail sales, and I had jobs, some as a manager, at Hartfield's, Woolworths, and 7-Eleven," she recounts.
That was two decades ago, when she had first moved to Hawaii in 1980 from her native Tonga. Her husband, William, relocated them here because he was finishing his education.
In 1993, however, her mother's health declined from diabetes, and she was needed at home. She left her three children and husband on Oahu, and flew back to Tonga to care for her mother for three months. Salakielu has siblings, but all but one of them lived outside of Tonga, and her father had died years before.
After her mother's health stabilized, Salakielu returned to Oahu to be with her immediate family, but always with intentions of splitting her time between the two islands, so she could be with her mother.
That was not to be; the day Salakielu arrived on Oahu, she got a phone call that her mother had passed. "I didn't think she would die that soon," she recalls with tears in her eyes, "but I was happy that I had that time with her."
Her mother's death came with a revelation, though. "I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to helping others in need," she says. "The first time I ever had to clean my mother's incontinence, I felt uncomfortable. I had never done that for anyone but a child, but now here I was wiping my mother's bottom after she soiled herself. Then I realized, if I wasn't here to do this, who would? How much could I trust outside help? Would they really care for my loved one the way I would?"
It sparked her desire to open her own care home. "I didn't realize this kind of work was needed, until I needed it," she says. Salakielu started by training as a certified nursing assistant and working at a large Kaneohe care home, then after four years, left that job to work at an agency that placed caregivers. Finally, she felt she had enough experience and a network to strike out on her own.
In 1999, Salakielu opened Salafina Adult Residential Care Home, a licensed adult residential care home on a quiet street in Kailua, directly across Castle Medical Center. Even the business name honors her parents: Sala is half of her last name. Fina is part of her maiden name, which is Finau. "This is dedicated to my heritage," she explains.
She and her family live in one house, and her care home is located next door on another house on the lot. The work is round-the-clock, as one might imagine. Her days are nonstop and full.
She rises early to prepare breakfast for her clients, makes sure all medications are properly administered, drives her clients around town to various medical appointments, and will even pick up drugs at the store for the clients.
She or her small staff prepare lunch and dinner. One day a week, she takes her patients on a social outing for some variety and stimulation. She stays up all night with clients if necessary. She's even literally run a patient across the street to the hospital's emergency room because it would be faster than calling for the ambulance.
On top of all this, for five years, she cared for her ailing husband as his health declined from diabetes. He was blind, incontinent, and could not walk. She cries as she tells me William died on June 20, 2014. "That was the single hardest thing I've ever faced in my life," she says. "We were married for 32 years. I miss him every day."
Salakielu has a big heart, though, and her compassion is not only for the elderly and disabled. She has three biological children and five more hanai kids she cares for. The eight children in her house range in age from 14 to 19.
The foster children are all relatives, and the task is not always easy. One boy, she says, came to her from a troubled home. "He just needed love. So we love him, and he's changed since he moved in," Salakielu says with characteristic patience. "You can turn lives around with love."
This is her life. She says she is happy. The work is not always easy, but she is constantly rewarded knowing she is helping the patients. "It can be something as simple as taking a shower. I know how I feel when I have a nice, hot shower. If someone can't do that for themselves, and I can provide that, then I feel good," she expresses. "I care for all my clients as if they are my parents."
She balances her life by attending the First Tongan United Methodist Church every Sunday. "It's the one thing I do for me," she smiles.
Salafina Adult Residential Care Home
665 A Ulukahiki Street
Kailua HI 96734