Loneliness a driving force for change

“Older people are saying to me in increasing droves, ‘I wish I did not wake up this morning’.

“If people are in their home and someone comes and does their dishes and their gardening and no-one sits down and looks them in the eye, and goes ‘how are you doing today, what’s happening in your world?’, you can get very, very lonely inside and you can start to die inside.

Gillian Goble in office.

“I care about that and I want to change that.”

Gillian Goble has worked in the community for a long time through church organisations and chaplaincy at the hospital, and it was these situations which drove her to take up the challenge to change other people’s lives.

Now the executive officer at Age Concern Taranaki, she is determined to make a difference.

“I felt there needs to be hope for a better day and why are our older people feeling that way?”

“I wanted to do something about older people who are marginalised through ill health or maybe a spouse passes away and they can’t get out and about, [they’re] isolated at home, and just not able to partake fully in the community around them.”

Life-changing crisis

Ms Goble has teamed up with local identity Lance Girling-Butcher in a push to develop New Plymouth into an age friendly city.

Nine years ago, the former editor of the Taranaki Herald and the Daily News went through his own life-changing crisis, and couldn’t have felt more despairing as he spent 17 weeks in his hospital bed losing his sight.

He had had a corneal transplant but there were complications.

“I had a fungus in my eye that they couldn’t kill and the longer it lasted, the more I knew I wasn’t going to get my eyesight back.

“It was horrific because I was physically run down as well as going blind.

“To kill this fungus they just about had to kill me.”

Lance Girling-Butcher outside (Wellington).

Mr Girling-Butcher says he went through a mourning process.

“I used to lie on my bed at night and think of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do.

“I suddenly realised this was a total waste of time – that I just had to forget all those things I was going to do and I had to get on with life and think positively.”

He says the turning point came when he listened to an interview with a blind pilot, who’d flown halfway round the world using talking instruments.

“I thought there’s the answer! I now have an i-phone on which I do everything – I send and receive emails, I can write things, I’ve got a GPS to help me find my way, I keep my talking books and my music on it, and of course, I use it as a telephone.

“Since then, I’ve never looked back and in fact, I actually feel better now than I’ve felt throughout the rest of my life.”

In the wake of his devastating illness, the former editor stood for and was elected, on to the council.

“One of the first things I had to do was develop a disability strategy for the council.”

Mr Girling-Butcher then became aware that high numbers of older people were choosing to live in New Plymouth, famous for its parks, gardens, coastline, thriving arts community, and facilities.

“We’ve got one of the largest percentages of [retirees] in the country in Taranaki – it’s a lovely place to retire.

“The shocking thing is that the number of people aged 65 plus is going to double in the next 30 years and I don’t think enough has been done to plan for that, both central and local government.”

Other groups around the country, such as in Kapiti, Hamilton, and Palmerston North are also developing plans for age friendly communities.

Social isolation

The social isolation checklist

Mr Girling-Butcher is now chair of New Plymouth's Positive Ageing Trust.

“One of my greatest worries is the loneliness that some people suffer – they isolate themselves and then they can’t get out of that so they’re left lonely and lost and bored, and they don’t know what to do with themselves."

That echoes the thoughts of Ms Goble.

“What I am seeing, and it concerns me greatly, is a disconnect.

“I am seeing older people living in one area of the community and doing what they want to be doing, and younger people are over on this side doing life over here, and each really not gaining the benefit from each other.

“Older people have so much experience, they can share so much wisdom and so much history about where we’ve come from and it’s such a rich, golden background that they can step up onto into their future.

“I don’t believe younger people understand or value that knowledge.”

It is, however, a two way street says Ms Goble.

“All the changes in today’s modern world - older people, they need to be involved in that, they need to be moving forward and getting i-pads and i-phones, into the technology and enjoying it fully.”

Moving forward

While developing connections between the generations is vitally important, Mr Girling-Butcher also wants some planning around infrastructure.

“How are we going to house all these older people? What are they going to do?

“There’s very little being done about pensioner housing – you’ve got local bodies getting out of it, Government’s not moving into it, it’s being left to private people.

“The huge number of retirement homes and villages that are being built are turning them into ghettoes of older people so they’re not mixing with the younger ones that cross the age gap.”

The former editor also believes if you love what you’re doing at work, don’t give it away.

“We need to encourage people to work longer, and I don’t mean that’s just to make them into slaves but I believe there’s a lot of ignorance about retirement and people are better off carrying on what they’re doing, if they like it, for as long as they can.

“You hear so many people who don’t plan for their retirement and retire, and within weeks they’re dead because they’re just so bored.”

The pair plan to set up a steering committee and find out from New Plymouth residents what they think works well in the region, what’s not meeting needs, and what they would like to see.

“I think to be community minded, broad-minded and have compassion for others in a different position to ourselves and looking after [each other] is what binds a community together and gives it its flavour,” says Ms Goble.

Mr Girling-Butcher is committed to making it work.

“I feel more positive and I feel like I’m doing something constructive.

“It’s that old thing about you get more from giving than taking.”