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A youth club for the elderly

30th July 2020

The face of Richard Jinman

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

A centre in West Belfast is taking a bold new approach to caring for the elderly with the help of National Lottery funding

Sophie McClosky, 92, and Margaret Mallon, 82, at the Intergenerational Centre for Excellence in West Belfast, Northern Ireland

Margaret Mallon was 67 when her husband died and the loss of her partner hit her hard. “My son came in one day and I was bawling my head off,” she recalls. “He said, ‘we’ve got to do something about this’.”

Margaret began attending The Montague Day Care Centre, a facility in West Belfast designed to meet the physical, social and emotional needs of older people. At the age of 82, she credits the centre with helping her deal with her loneliness, make new friends and engage in all sorts of activities she would never have tried on her own.

“They’re going to teach us how to use a computer which would be great because I can’t tell one part of it from another,” she chuckles. “It’s marvellous here, I love it.”

The Montague Centre, a project run by the Springfield Charitable Association (SCA), has been operating since 1990 in various West Belfast locations. In February 2019, it moved into new premises, a purpose-built £1.6m building near the Falls Road which was funded by The National Lottery and the Northern Ireland government.

The conversion of a derelict former health care building into a welcoming place whose wide corridors and bright paint scheme is designed to cater for those with dementia, was achieved with a grant of more than £350,000 from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Space & Place Programme. The £15m fund was designed to bring communities in Northern Ireland together by making better use of local spaces and places.

Since The National Lottery’s first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

Sophie McClosky, 92, and Margaret Mallon, 82, at the Intergenerational Centre for Excellence in West Belfast, Northern Ireland

Terry McNeill, General Manager of SCA, likes to describe the new facility as a “youth club for older people”. Why? Because it is trying to take a fresh approach to caring for older people based on its own research and feedback from the very people it serves.

One of the cornerstones of the new centre is an attempt to improve the health and quality of life of older people before they get sick or injured. The aim is to keep them out of the health system and save them from becoming isolated and lonely as they recuperate at home.

“Life expectancy is clearly important, but it’s the period of time that you’re living with ill health before you pass away that is a significant issue for us,” says Terry. “We’re trying to move the conversation from talking about reactive care to preventative care.”

To achieve that aim, the new Montague Centre is equipped with both a gym and a hydrotherapy pool where a physiotherapist will help older people overcome injuries and get respite from pain and stiffness.

Says Terry, “If you’re under 30 and tear a ligament in your ankle the recovery period is about six weeks. People in their nineties may never recover on their own. With the pool we can get somebody back on their feet within a realistic time frame which is good for everyone.”

Margaret’s friend Sophie McClosky, 92, is looking forward to giving the hydrotherapy pool a go. She broke her pelvis in a fall several months ago and reckons the warm water might be the ideal way to speed up the healing process and alleviate the pain.

“I’d love to try it as long as I can cover my legs,” she laughs.

The focus on preventative care is only one aspect of the centre that’s breaking the mould, says Terry. The decision to brand the facility as a ‘youth centre for older people’ is recognition of the fact that many older people are wary of conventional day centres. The prospect of a round of bingo and a cup of tea isn’t likely to lure people out of their homes who are “comfortable with climbing a mountain, learning a new language, messing about with an iPad or going to university”.

Sophie McClosky, 92, and Margaret Mallon, 82, at the Intergenerational Centre for Excellence in West Belfast, Northern Ireland

Even so, such people can be vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. The answer: a day care centre that offers all manner of courses in technology, art, craft as well as an advice centre.

“What we tried to do was create a facility for people who are disconnected [from society] that enables them to reconnect,” says Terry. “You don’t do it by saying ‘come down to the day centre’ because certain older people would rather be seen dead than come to a day centre. But they will come in and participate in an activity such as a course on using YouTube or setting up a Gmail account.”

Lured to the centre by the extraordinary range of activities and courses, older people can also avail themselves of free meals and transport, health checks and more.

Terry says the advice centre is proving particularly popular because age throws up challenges that aren’t always health related. “What happens to things like wills and power of attorney when someone is diagnosed with dementia?” he says. “We’re trying to simplify the process.”

The approach is already getting results. One elderly woman, who rarely left her home, was unable to answer any of the questions posed by a clinician at a memory clinic. Two months after starting at the Montague Centre she went back to the same clinic and answered all 30 questions correctly.

The doctor asked her what had changed. Her answer: “I’m going to the Centre three days a week.”

About 25 people visit the Montague Centre each day. It is currently open five days a week, but Terry says the ambition is to extend that to seven days a week.

New ideas are popping up all the time. “We are working on a summer scheme,” says Terry. “Lots of kids go to summer camps - why can’t older people have something similar? It will give carers some respite and provide people with day trips and other activities.”

“This place will transform over the coming months and the next year, but we’re very excited,” says Terry.