Northern Ireland news

Dynamic trio bring issues to fore as 'voice' of older people

Young at heart, from left, George Bell (74), David Florida-James (79) and Flo McKeever (74). Picture By Hugh Russell
Mairead Holland

GIVING older people a voice is today's focus of the Irish News Neighbourhood News Drop. Three young-at-heart pensioners - Flo McKeever, George Bell and David Florida-James - talk about their roles in the Age NI Consultative Forum and discuss topical issues including health, work and dementia. The paper's Neighbourhood News Drop initiative, being run in conjunction with charitable organisations, invites shoppers to pick up a complimentary copy of the paper each day from their local Spar for an elderly neighbour.

AGE really is just a state of mind for Flo McKeever (74), George Bell (74) and David Florida-James (79).

The trio, who are members of the Age NI Consultative Forum, are vibrant proof that there is no such thing as a stereotypical 'older person'.

Limavady man David cycles 15-20 miles every day and has an unwritten rule that if his destination is under three miles then he walks or takes the bike.

George, from Dundonald, is a retired lecturer who works online for six universities and travels to China once a year to teach.

And Portadown woman Flo is a retired nurse who reached the top of her profession - and has a penchant for clothes from H&M and Zara.

And that is only scratching the surface of their personal life histories which, they explain, have an intrinsic bearing on the voluntary work they do for Age NI.

All three are peer facilitators with the charity and as the 'voice' of older people listen to and identify issues of concern, whether they be housing, health, equality or poverty.

And they're not afraid to challenge the charity or other statutory bodies on policies if they feel they are wrong.

On the morning we meet, George and David have been in a focus meeting with the Housing Executive to talk about the challenges facing older home owners.

The problem, which many people will identify with, is encapsulated by David's situation.

The father of eight (he lost another son 30 years ago), grandfather of 17 and great-grandfather of three is living in a family home which is now too big but which he has been unable to sell for the past 10 years as the area has "gone downhill".

Originally from Wales, David was the first biology teacher at St Columb's College in Derry, and was responsible for introducing computers to the Western Education and Library Board.

He said: "I am living in a four-bedroom house which I am rattling around in on my own. I feel guilty about occupying such a big property when families could be living in it."

Our interview date is also the day Buckinghamshire man Geoffrey Whaley (80), who sufferered from motor neurone disease, had chosen, with the support of his family, to end his life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

His decision, and the plight of his wife who faced prosecution, prompted the start of a discussion on the Consultative Forum's Facebook page.

It is an issue of which Flo, who has three children and seven grandchildren, has had personal, painful experience.

She said: "I lost my very best friend to dementia. She died when she was 70 and she had it for six or seven years. It had a big impact on me. They nursed her at home until she passed away and my husband Des and I used to go and let her husband away for little breaks and stay with her.

"I was one of the last people she recognised. Every time I went to see her she would look at me and the tears would trickle down her cheeks and she would say 'Flo, please', and I would think 'what is she saying to me, what does she want me to do?'

"I think she was saying please help me, I think she was talking about assisted dying."

All three agree that the issue of assisted dying and death in general is one that needs to be brought out into the open.

George added: "We help old dogs to die but when it comes to humans we don't want to talk about it.

"It's early days but I brought it to the forum because I feel strongly about debating issues. I like to get them out so they are not hidden."

The father of two and grandfather of three has lived on his own - "like Robinson Crusoe" he jokes - since his wife Dorothy died suddenly seven years ago.

The couple had moved back from London when he took phased retirement at the age of 62 and had planned to travel to and from Australia where one of his sons lives.

He has since had to "redevelop" his life and as well as his busy university work supervising dissertations, he sits on the NI Pensioners' Parliament and the Age Sector Platform.

One sector he is particularly interested in is age discrimination, an issue particularly relevant in an increasingly ageing population. He said: "I am extending my working life because I want to work.

"The only face-to-face work I do is in China - teaching management - and some students are surprised when they see me because of my age, but in a good way. The wonderful, positive thing is that in China they love you when you are old."

One of the biggest issues facing older people is health care and it is one which is of particular interest to Flo, who was head of specialist nurses in the Southern Health Trust and also volunteered for Marie Curie.

One project she has just finished working on is Project Retain, developed by the peer facilitators and the Public Health Agency (PHA), which seeks to encourage nurses to stay within elderly care.

"There has been an increase in the number of older people and in the incidences of dementia. It tends to be a lot of older nurses who work on these wards," she explained.

Flo and others visited two hospitals to speak to nurses and after the project ended was delighted to be told that an evaluation by PHA had found the level of posts being vacated had fallen.

The forum, which is made up of 40 people from across NI, meets every three months and is currently taking applications for new members.

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