Is this the kind of place I would like to grow old in?
Resident Ann Clarke with the ‘Tea Lights’ installation by artist Jennie Moran at McAuley Place, Sallins Road, Naas. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Resident Donal Burke in the front garden of McAuley Place, Sallins Road, Naas. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
What kind of place would I like to grow old in? This was the question that Margharita Solan and a group of professionals living in Naas, Co Kildare asked themselves 12 years ago.
The question propelled the group towards a vision of independent living apartments for older people set in the midst of an arts and community centre where people of all ages participate in social and cultural activities.
They then purchased the former convent on Sallins Road, Naas and through fundraising and government grants have developed 53 independent living apartments in the original building and a new block to the rear.
“The aim of McAuley Place is to bring older people to the heart of a vibrant community, the focus is on community and not on the older people,” explains Solan, who worked as a nurse for years and now works full-time voluntarily at this positive ageing centre.
Not a disease
“Old age is not a disease so there are no doctors or nurses on the premises. But, because the building is in the heart of the town, medical care is always easily available,” she adds.
The energy efficient units, almost all of which are now occupied, cost €95 per week for people aged 65 and over. Preference is given to people from Naas or returned emigrants from the area.
Each apartment has a fully equipped kitchen and adapted bathroom, and residents bring their own furniture to the bedroom and sitting room.
One resident explains how she feels about living here. “My husband died and I felt this would be a nice place to live. Nobody tells me what to do. It has everything and is beautifully run. I do whatever I want and see my family very often.”
The incorporation of an arts centre and a community centre into the development has been of central importance, according to Solan.
If You Were In My Shoes Now, a year-long arts project in which 50 people aged from five to 86 years made pairs of felt slippers, recently spawned an international seminar celebrating intergenerational creativity.
Originally known as Nás ni Ríogh Housing Association, the development is now called McAuley Place.
Opening up over time
At 66, Benny Forte is one of the youngest residents.
“A few people will shut themselves away in the beginning but they open up over time. We have bingo, movie nights and whist. There is a security van which goes around at night. I stay in touch with the older residents and see if they need anything,” he explains.
A secondary and primary school occupy the space behind the housing units which means the sound of children echoes throughout the day.
On my visit to McAuley Place, I noticed a friendly atmosphere with a purposeful attention to making people feel welcome.
A local art group displays and sells paintings in the entrance hall. Knitted jackets and hats made in the craft classes are for sale at the reception desk.
The tearoom staff bake their own scones and serve tea in china cups – displayed in a old china cabinet.
Many of the people who work here are volunteers.
The United Nations Principles for Older Persons – written by hand – are prominently displayed in the hallway.
Many of the seats in the residents’ lounge are just that bit higher so older people don’t have difficulty pulling themselves back up to standing after spending watching a movie, playing cards or chess or chatting to others.
On a broader level, Solan says that she believes older people need some “positive stress” in their lives.
“I believe we need the expectation of the unexpected. As we get older, the risk is that we adapt our environment to make it more and more fragile.
“From putting in bathrooms on the ground floor to picking up paper for someone who can still bend, allbeit slowly, we are in danger of creating environments which ultimately prepare us too early for long-time institutional care,” she says.
In McAuley Place, many of the residents voluntarily help out. Andrew Higgins moved into McAuley Place with his wife Kathleen after he had a stroke.
“It’s great to be in the middle of the town,” says Higgins, as he uses his walker to sit on while restoring old whiskey barrels for use as flower pots.
Another resident, Jim Hannon, cuts the lawns and does some landscaping for nothning. Kathleen Higgins volunteers in the tearooms.
Health through learning
Residents like these will fit perfectly in to Solan’s next project – a health through learning centre which will offer courses in weaving, flower arranging, basket making and wood turning for people of all ages.
“I’d like to see the Health Through Learning Centre as a hangout rather than as a drop-in space for people to meet other members of the community and engage in lifelong learning,” says Solan, who has 75 per cent of capital funding provisionally agreed for the restoration of a 19th Century stone building in the grounds of McAuley Place for the centre.
For more details about the McAuley Place, Sallins Road, Naas, Co. Kildare or to sponsor the Health Through Learning Centre, contact Margharita Solan on 086 8657736. See also nnrha.ie