Social entrepreneurs: Wise solutions help older people in local communities
Social entrepreneur Mary Nally saw how older people could help others in the community and set up the Third Age organisation to harness their time and expertise
Mary Nally, the founder of Third Age, a national voluntary organisation that represents older people. Photograph: Alan Betson
For almost three decades, Mary Nally has been tapping into a powerful yet often underused resource around Ireland. She has harnessed it to set up a helpline, to welcome immigrants into local communities, and to ensure that older people can access local services. That resource? The expertise and time of older people themselves.
“When older people retire, all that talent, that experience, that expertise can be there untapped in villages and towns in Ireland,” says Nally, founder of Third Age, a national voluntary organisation that represents older people. “They have the time to give, and I have found over the years that older people are very generous with their time, and we are tapping into that.”
It’s a win-win situation for the 1,400 or so volunteers involved in Third Age, who help to build connections in the community, Nally explains. “They feel their self-worth – they have so much to offer and to contribute,” she says.
Building social connections
For Nally, who worked as a nurse, the idea to help older people in the community struck when her mother came to live with her in Summerhill, Co Meath, 27 years ago. “I could see village life through my mother’s eyes, and I could see that there was very little for her to do except bingo, which wasn’t for her,” she says. “So I called a public meeting to see what the response would be like, with a view to setting up a social club.”
Plenty of interested older people turned up that evening, and Nally realised there was an abundance of creativity and goodwill in the room. “That’s when I began to think about how we could tap into that resource to answer community needs and help alleviate some of the difficulties of older age,” she says.
One of the first issues they tackled was transport for older people who might find it difficult to get around. “We raised funds for a bus, and now we have two,” says Nally. “And that enables you to take people shopping, to the GP, on holidays and generally to participate in the activities of Third Age.”
The other major project was the Senior Helpline service, where trained older volunteers listen to and support older people in Ireland. “We identified that some older people can be lonely, maybe stressed, or have a worry they would like to share,” says Nally. “So we decided to set up a helpline and our members volunteered to train and provide this peer-to-peer listening service, reaching out to people who may be worried.”
It started out as a limited service, but the LoCall line (1850-440-444) now runs from 10am until 10pm every day. “Last year we had in excess of 30,000 calls, and no two calls are the same,” she says. “People will tell us they have spoken to nobody all day, or maybe for a couple of days. They tell us that we are their lifeline and they tell us about different issues: it could be financial, they could be bereaved or frightened, or they could be feeling lonely and phoning to say goodnight.”
A visit to the supermarket several years ago prompted Nally to think about other forms of isolation in the community where, again, older people could help. “I was in my local supermarket and I saw a young mother [who was not from Ireland] having great difficulty reading the label on the package in her hand,” she recalls. “She had two small children with her and I could see the frustration in her face. I began to realise that was another form of isolation; if you don’t understand the local language.”
Nally talked to the Third Age members, and the Fáilte Isteach programme was born, in which immigrants meet trained local older volunteers who help them to improve their English.
“They can benefit from free tuition in English and the friendship that goes with it,” says Nally, who describes how the combined efforts of about 700 volunteers in 22 counties chalks up roughly 40,000 hours of tuition each year.
“Being able to speak English helps families get to know their neighbours and become more a part of the community. And many of the families have become good friends to Third Age: I have been invited to communions and confirmations thanks to the links built up there.”
While Third Age runs activities around Ireland, the headquarters remains in Summerhill, colocated with the primary care centre where local GP Dr Joe Clarke is a “long-time friend” of the initiative, says Nally. The centre has a chiropodist, counselling, a library, hairdressing and a beautician, and older members of the community stage variety shows, teach knitting to younger people and learn computer skills, she explains.
“We have volunteer tutors who come in to teach them about things such as Skyping: many sons and daughters have emigrated and now we have the case where a mother and daughter in different countries can have afternoon tea over Skype.”
Third Age relies heavily on funding to keep its programmes going, Nally says. “We look for fundraising across the board wherever we can get it – grassroots, corporate, Government funding – but it is becoming more and more difficult.”
But she credits the help of Ashoka Ireland, which supports social entrepreneurs: Nally is now an Ashoka Fellow. “Ashoka are always at the other end of the phone: they open doors for us to people who can help us and also it’s nice to have the international recognition of being a Fellow,” she says.
And Nally is continuing to look for ways to improve social situations. “There is so much more that can be done by identifying the needs and looking at ways of addressing them,” she says. “And it’s not rocket science.” See thirdageireland.ie