‘There are so many ways we can improve life for our vulnerable populations’

Health hero: Mary Nally founded Third Age Ireland, a national voluntary organisation which provides services, social activities and volunteering opportunities for older people

Mary Nally was working as a nurse at St Joseph's Hospital in Trim, Co Meath, when her recently widowed mother came to live with her and her family. It rapidly became clear there were few social outlets available for older adults in the locality and that some suffered from loneliness and social isolation.

This motivated Nally to provide social activities, services and volunteering opportunities for older people in the community of Summerhill, Co Meath. And this sowed the seed for what was to become Third Age Ireland. Over the next 30 years, activities were developed from home care and repair, a senior choir and drama group, fitness classes, to an internet cafe for older people. In 1997, a senior helpline was set up with trained volunteers. Other initiatives such as Fáilte Isteach – a free English conversation classes for immigrants – and Trauma Teddies (where older people and children knit teddy bears together which are donated to the ambulance services to comfort small children in distress) followed.

Mary Nally has received several awards for her work including an Ashoka Fellowship (a global organisation of social entrepreneurs) and The Rehab People of the Year award.

1) What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest achievement is founding Third Age Ireland and seeing it grow and flourish over the last 30 years. It exceeded all my expectations. I originally set it up to help bring services, social activities and volunteering opportunities for older people in Summerhill and the surrounding areas in Co Meath. Some of the programmes we conceived such as Senior Helpline, where older adults donate their time and provide a sympathetic listening ear for people in need, are now a national service. Fáilte Isteach, an initiative to provide volunteer-led conversational English classes for migrants to Ireland is being adopted in countries throughout Europe. Most of all though, I really love the local activities we developed where Third Age members contribute to their communities such as teaching primary schoolchildren how to knit or exhibiting our mobile museum of 200 artefacts in schools and nursing homes.


2) What motivates you in your work and life?

I’ve always been motivated by the need to solve problems that I see around me. For example, I started up Third Age Ireland because I saw village life through my mother’s eyes and realised how little was available to keep her occupied and active. So much change and difference can be made by individuals and communities of determined local people. There are so many ways we can improve life for our vulnerable populations and I’ve learned over the years not to be afraid of a challenge. Often it is all about making a start on tackling a problem. I don’t worry about politics or wait until all the resources are in place because with a good idea, these will follow. I have very positive attitude to life. I believe you can achieve anything as long as you put your heart into it.

3) What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

I love music and walking. I take an hour-long walk at dawn which keeps me fit physically and allows me to both relax and think through the day ahead. One of my hobbies is collecting vinyl records. I have over 1,000 LPs and there is nothing I love more than listening to good music in the evenings.

4) What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

I think we need to think holistically in terms of the bio-psycho-social factors for maintaining a healthy society. Encouraging people of all generations to keep fit and active is incredibly important, but we also need to look after our mental health and take time to stop and smell the roses; to appreciate the small things in life. Finding ways to reduce stress and maintain a healthy diet is very beneficial, as is keeping socially connected within our networks or communities, which can help alleviate loneliness and isolation.

5) What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

The sensitive design and deployment of top-down health and social services is critical as is careful planning for the challenges that lie ahead in the future. However, I am also a firm believer in a bottom-up approach that encourages and efficiently assists local individuals and groups to get involved with volunteering and improving the lives of those in their communities.

6) What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

Depression, loneliness and social isolation are top my list of pressing health issues for Ireland today. These affect all aspects of a person’s life.

7) How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

Careful planning and targeted health and social services are critical here. We need to consider both quality of life and dignity, remembering the importance of companionship as well as everyday needs such as showering, good nutrition, and the ability to get out of your own house. Providing greater supports to caregivers and families is key to keeping people out of hospitals and in their own homes, as is the rich tapestry of initiatives we have in Ireland such as Meals on Wheels, Men's Sheds, Enable Ireland, St Vincent De Paul, Active Retirement Ireland, Jack and Jill Foundation, just to name a few. Cutting down hospital waiting times to see a consultant or have surgery would also make an enormous difference in the lives of all generations.

8) What do you do to relax and unwind?

I have two sons and five young grandchildren whom I adore. They all live in the same village as my husband and I and we see them all the time. Sometimes we go on holidays together and I love watching the little ones grow, laugh and play. There is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting with them in my living room and reading stories.

9) What makes you laugh?

You would not believe the craic amongst the Third Age members. It lifts my heart to listen to the jokes and witty comments that fly around in our meetings and as we do our activities.

10) Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?

My position has taken me around the world from visiting outdoor exercise programmes in China, to the World Senior Games in Utah, to an international Men's Sheds conference in Australia. Each of these places has its own beauty and special attractions, but I really can't imagine living permanently outside of Ireland.

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3 - John Burke: Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain
4 - Derek Devoy: The Kilkenny taxi man whose drive saves lives
5 - Sarah Fitzgibbon: Society has to stop treating the marginalised and disabled as charity cases
6 - Kathleen King: I wanted to make sure no one else would have to wait nine years for a diagnosis
7 - Caoimhe Bennett: The schoolgirl raising understanding about young carers
8 - Ann Norton: Our hospitals are a disgrace. We are letting down our doctors, nurses and whole society
9 - Una McNicholas: My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister
10 - Catherine Cox: Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role they did not ask for
11 - Prof Rose Anne Kenny: Good friendships make for a healthy life as much as regular exercise and healthy diet
12 - Dr Robert O'Connor: Within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine and screening
13 - Claire Cahill and Michelle Long: Scoliosis campaigners battling to reduce waiting times for children
14 - Prof Donal O'Shea: The shocking fact is that most ill-health now comes from our lifestyle
15 - Nuala Geraghty: Every time we place a dog, it's like giving new life to each family
16 - Mavis Ubuntu: Cooking was a right that was taken away from us
17 - Krysia Lynch: A healthy society starts in utero
18 - Paula Robinson: The self-sacrifice that carers make on a daily basis is immense
19 - Joanne Farrell: 'I'm very proud of my team and our brain injury survivors'