Age is just a number for people at west Belfast's new Youth Club for Older People

Belfast's mould-breaking Youth Club for Older People is changing lives for those who take part in its various activities. Gail Bell spoke to centre manager Terry McNeill and some of those who believe it has offered a lifeline out of social exclusion and loneliness

Joe Gillen (81) and Marie Smyth (74) try out some the gym equipment with Micky McGurran at the new Cupar Street Youth Club for Older People in west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

THERE'S an unmistakable twinkle in Mary Teer's eye as she speaks and an invisible energy fizzes around her, hinting at the woman she once was.

Now aged 79, her face is etched with the lines of life and although two strokes and two heart attacks have slowed down her speech, they have failed to extinguish her very obvious joy of talking.

"I'm known as a bit of chatterbox round here," she tells me, chuckling at the kindly sobriquet bestowed upon her by staff and fellow service users of Belfast's recently opened 'Youth Club for Older People' in Cupar Street, off the Springfield Road in the west of the city.

We are sitting in the 'quiet room' in the £1.6 million reimagined day centre which opened earlier this year, thanks to the vision of Springfield Charitable Association which developed the site and funding from various partners, including Space & Place, supporters of communities across divides.

If you look out the window, you will see the peace wall and most likely a handful of tourists with cameras, but what remains hidden is the desperate need of the elderly people who live invisible in this community and who now catch a glimpse of a runway-lit path to a more healthy, hopeful future.

Enjoying the opening of the new Youth Club for Older People. Picture by Mal McCann

In Mary's case, spending time at this unique 'youth' club (which already has a waiting list) has been a means of making her feel "whole" again and the nominal cost – £5 a day including bus pick-up and hot meal – doesn't enter the equation.

"I attended the former Montague Day Centre before we moved to this new building and getting out of the house has been a lifeline to living again," says the Fingals Court resident. "I live with my daughter, but she is at work all day and it gets lonely. Walking, talking, engaging with people – you really don't realise how important these things are until you lose them."

And that is the crux of it – social isolation in this area is reaching epidemic proportions according to centre manager, Terry McNeill, who is passionate about redrawing the sedentary, bingo-playing image of older members of the community and letting them set the pace with a brave, new agenda.

Among those also ready to lead the charge are Mary's friends at the centre, Patsy McGarry (78) from Beechmount and Carmel Lavery (71) from the Westrock area.

Patsy became ill three years ago and after being sent by her GP for assessment at a memory clinic, her worried family feared the worst after she failed to answer correctly a single one of 30 questions set in a standard dementia test.

"They thought Alzheimer's disease was starting to work on me," she says. "It turned out to be depression but six months later, when I went back to the clinic and answered the same questions all over again, I got every one of them right.

Patsy McGarry enjoying life at the Youth Club for Older People. Picture by Mal McCann

"No-one couldn't understand it but I told them I had started coming here and it was the best thing that had ever happened to me."

For Carmel, who has an oxygen supply discreetly attached to her wheelchair, attending the Cupar Street club has had a similarly dramatic impact in terms of good mental health.

"Since coming here, it literally has been the difference between living and existing," she explains. "Before, I was sitting at home all day, starting at four walls, doing nothing and seeing nobody.

"The hot meal, activities, friendships... these are what I love the most. I also like to try to the different exercises – the exercise class murders me, but I love it, all the same. Later I'm looking forward to getting out in the new garden and getting some plants in."

Such heartfelt enthusiasm is all Terry McNeill needs to hear to know this 'club' is indeed a model for the future and one which has the blessing of a large group of supporters, from medical professionals, to families, community activists and volunteers – more of whom are desperately needed.

"We wanted to have a conversation about moving from reactive to pro-active, to preventative care – and that is what we have done," he says. "When we think about this generation, we homogenise and we think, 'God, love them, they're they are, sitting playing bingo....

"But I've met older people who have gone travelling around the world, who are learning different languages, who are going back to university. A week ago, someone wanted to know if he could use our facilities to set up a ham radio club and he spoke passionately about it for 10 minutes.

Getting into the swing of things at the Youth Club's opening. Picture by Mal McCann

"Of course, we've also organised the usual, run-of-the mill, things like IT training courses, and we set up an advice centre downstairs after we discovered people needed practical help with filling in forms online."

In addition to an older people's gym, activity rooms, library, treatment rooms and aforementioned 'quiet' room, the new centre – once a derelict building – also has a hydrotherapy pool and conference facilities for hire which will assist with the charity's aim to be self-funding.

The project has been supported by the National Lottery Community Fund, Department for Communities, Wolfson Foundation and the Alpha Fund.Currently, but just £26 per day (per person) is provided by the health trust, which Terry says barely covers the basics.

Nine qualified members of staff look after around 25 older people (ages are between 65 and 93) who arrive on a daily basis, but there are 40 on the books and a waiting list is growing.

"The need has been well documented in the past as this area is top of the tables for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and multiple chronic diseases," Terry says, "but high mortality rates aside, we also have the highest crime rates in Belfast.

"When work started work on what was a derelict building – previously used by the Belfast health trust – we were burgled three times. There were also threats to builders and we found discarded heroin needles. Older people living in the area are afraid to go out of their homes after dark, so there are big challenges, hence the focus on reducing isolation and emphasising diet, exercise and good mental wellbeing."

The all-new 'activity list' is full of bright ideas to meet this challenge, including an ambitious 'legacy tile' art initiative and 'summer scheme' to include various days trips.

"As well as the Positive Ageing Week we set up in west Belfast several years ago – which is now run by Belfast City Council because it became too big for us energetic amateurs to manage – one of the most simple but effective programmes we ever did was about letter writing," Terry says.

"I thought it would be a bit of craic, but it turned out that no-one was interested in writing to people who were alive and instead wanted to write to their loved ones who had passed away.

"It quite accidentally turned into a great scheme for dealing with bereavement and it was beautiful. It is a perfect example of starting something and then being led into something better by the older people themselves."

:: Anyone who would like to know more about volunteering at the Youth Club for Older People should contact Terry on 0796 9070 837.

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