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An interview with Mary Nally of the Third Age Foundation

Social entrepreneurship involves using business know-how, personal initiative, and innovation to tackle serious problems in the community. It’s about finding effective and original solutions to long-term problems, often using people’s goodwill, time, and willingness to help out as your primary asset. Mary Nally’s Third Age Foundation, based in Summerhill, Co Meath, is a sterling example of how such an organisation can develop from humble beginnings into a major force for good in the wider community.

Third Age is a voluntary organisation whose vision was to tap into the experience, energy, and creativity of older people to enrich both their own lives and that of their communities. It stresses values of social inclusion, active citizenship, and recognising the value and life experience of its mature volunteers. We talked to founder Mary Nally about the formation and growth of the organisation, and the many community-based projects it undertakes.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the Third Age Foundation was formed?

When my mother came to live with me in Summerhill in County Meath, I began to see village life through her eyes. This was 27 years ago. There was literally nothing for her to do except bingo, and she hated bingo! My background is nursing, and I had worked for ten years in a long stay hospital for older people. I became aware that some of the people in the nursing home would have been able to stay longer in their own homes if the facilities had been there for them. That’s when I thought it would be interesting to see what level of interest there might be in forming a type of social group for older people.

I was amazed on the first night when over forty people showed up, and this was in a small village. So I know that I was on a winner, and that there was a great need for this type of group. It started from really humble beginnings: just me sitting in my own kitchen, meeting the group, finding out what their interests were and where they wanted to take the group. I began to realize that older people had a wealth of talent and creativity, and that there was a lot that older people could do for themselves and others.

What type of work does Third Age do?

The first project that I set up was called Senior Help Line. This came about because I became aware that we have older people who are lonely and isolated, but we also have older people who are very active and have a lot to give. It was about reaching out to those people who are isolated and lonely, but it is a peer to peer confidential listening service provided by trained older volunteers. Now, it’s open every day, twelve hours a day, 365 days a year. Last year alone, we received in excess of 30,000 calls. People call us for many reasons: they may be worried, anxious, concerned, depressed, lonely, suicidal, experiencing elder abuse, or looking for information. The number is 1850 440 444. We are open 7 days a week, on Bank Holidays, even on Christmas Day, which sadly can be one of our busiest days.

We offer programmes, activities, services and volunteering opportunities to older people within a wide catchment area, and we also have a social programme for nursing homes. Another of our projects was called Fáilte Isteach. This project came about after I saw a young mother in my local supermarket who was a new arrival in the country. I could see the frustration in her face as she was unable to read the package in her hand. I felt that this was another form of isolation and exclusion: being unable to speak the language of the country you are living in. So we decided to teach conversational English to the new emigrant communities.

I remember the first night when we opened our doors, and our group started to come in, I was overwhelmed. And each week it grew and grew from word of mouth, and to fast-forward to where we are today, we now have 72 branches nationally, and 680 trained volunteers which are older people. Of course, Fáilte Isteach also promotes the concept of social inclusion, active citizenship, equality, and recognition of the value of older volunteers.

So Third Age really came about from the realization that older people had a great deal to contribute to their communities, but that contribution wasn’t adequately appreciated and utilized.

Yes, and what I found over the years was that the willingness of people to give, and their commitment, is amazing. So it came about from looking at vintage life through my mother’s eyes, and from my nursing experience, from asking myself how could I keep older people in their own homes for longer. And by social programmes, by getting involved, this improves mental health and alleviates depression a lot. So this was a way for older people to remain connected to their communities.

Can you tell us about a recent project which you found particularly satisfying?

We have a project called The Way We Were, which is a living and oral history. I was invited to a local school to explain to the children what life was like 50 years ago. I asked our members if they could access some artefacts, and I was amazed at the hidden gems that they found! We came back with over 200 artefacts: churns, pots, bellows, and so much more. We have been to several schools around Leinster with this exhibition, and it is an amazing experience for the children, to find out the story and experiences behind each artefact. We also take this exhibition into nursing homes, and in the nursing homes the effect is very different. For the children, the artefacts are very unfamiliar; in the nursing homes they inspire reminisce. It is a lovely project which is going extremely well, and we are hoping to take it to more schools and nursing homes in the future.

What advice would you offer to people who are looking to use their initiative and entrepreneurial spirit to benefit their wider communities?

I would always say to do it. If you have an idea, why not try it, because if you don’t, you will never know. It may be a success, and it may not, but at least to try. What I have learned over the years of building up Third Age to where it is today is to ask for help and assistance. With a nursing background, I wasn’t a business person, but people were amazing in the assistance they were prepared to give. So I would advise people not to be afraid, to go for it, but to seek help if they need it.

What do you think council and local government can do to facilitate social entrepreneurship and community-based innovation?

I think that support is vitally important, but I also feel that, in the case of somebody who may be innovative, seed-funding is crucial. A little can mean a lot when you’re starting out. Within county councils and local government, you have a lot of expertise as well, and that expertise could help people who are struggling or trying to set up. Mentoring is also hugely important to guide people in the right direction, or in drafting a business plan. So within the council itself, you have that expertise, and to make that available is what’s important. But seed-funding and encouragement is the vital thing.

Find out more about Third Age at their website


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