Jo Evans and her team
St Denys’ Church dominates the heart of Rotherfield village in East Sussex. Standing on the mown churchyard lawn, Geoff White, 86, points out to his wife Hilary the gleaming shingles that encase the top of the 11th-century church’s 165ft spire. A sudden movement catches his eye. From behind the bell chamber a flock of buntings soars skywards. Geoff, a lifelong keen birdwatcher, follows their flight with his gaze and eagerly moves forward to catch a final glimpse before they fly from view. In the churchyard, Hilary, 85, is clearly delighted to see her husband so animated.
‘A year ago he was in a wheelchair, unable to walk. He was practically immobile, he couldn’t talk and his memory had gone. To be frank, he was a zombie, entombed in a useless body. Weren’t you, Geoff?’
‘I don’t know,’ her husband says cheerily. ‘I can’t remember a thing about it. I just know that with the exception of the odd ache and pain, and the inevitable dimming memory, I’ve got my life back.’
Geoff suffered his stroke eight years ago: it was only on his return from hospital that the couple discovered how much their active existence would change.
Hilary, a teacher, and Geoff, an occupational psychologist, had spent their working lives in Africa and the UK. On retirement they split the year between their Rotherfield home and a farmhouse in France. They enjoyed rambling and gardening. But then the stroke hit.
‘I had to do everything for him,’ she says. ‘Just physically managing him was exhausting. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t seem to think.’ Isolated, unable to leave Geoff for a moment, and with her own health faltering under the physical and emotional burden, it seemed Hilary had no choice but to consider residential care for the man with whom she had shared her life for more than 60 years.
‘I couldn’t have borne that… but there were days when I would cry with sheer frustration, wondering how much longer I could shoulder all the responsibility,’ she recalls. ‘It was depressing for me. And there was no quality of life for Geoff.’
That Geoff remains at home and has made such an astonishing physical recovery is down to one woman’s determination to do something about the paucity of community care for the elderly and infirm in Rotherfield. Jo Evans (above), a local teacher, had witnessed an elderly couple nearby suffering the anguish of being separated in later years when one was no longer able to care for the other after an illness. She became passionate about ensuring it wouldn’t happen again.
Her brainchild was to set up Rotherfield St Martin (RSM), a church-in-community charity dedicated to providing a host of support and services for senior citizens: a sort of ‘retirement village’, if you like, in which pensioners in the village receive the help and care they need to remain in their own homes, and maintain their cherished independence, for as long as possible. What’s more, it is all based on the tradition of self-help.
Jo, 62, whose bird-like frame belies a robust ‘can-do’ personality (her nickname is Dynamo Jo), gave up her job to devote herself full-time to RSM and, from small beginnings seven years ago, it has become a vibrant club with 300-plus members and 140 volunteers. Last year, it just missed winning The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services.
RSM provides its members with drivers and handymen, and classes in arts and crafts, yoga, exercise, bridge and computing. It provides bereavement counselling and also helps with form-filling (many of the elderly were not receiving benefits to which they were entitled).
RSM stepped in after a request from Geoff's physiotherapist, as he was coming to the end of a six-week stint of care after his stroke. RSM drivers took Geoff to exercise club and physiotherapy, giving Hilary something a break from caring in doing so. Members of the RSM's volunteer 'befriending' service also spent hours with Geoff. One member with medical training raised concerns about Geoff’s medication: t transpired he was being given double the recommended dose. ‘The change was immediate,’ says Hilary.
Geoff’s mental faculties improved, as did his mobility. ‘The exercise club has been wonderful for my mobility and balance,’ he says. ‘I’ve got my life back.’ ‘We’ve got our lives back,’ Hilary corrects him, as the couple stroll arm-in-arm in the churchyard.
Across the street at the charity’s labyrinthine offices, Jo, founder and manager, and her chairman, Andy Miller, 70, answer the phones while volunteers run the coffee shop. There is a constant stream of banter as members arrive and prepare for a wide range of classes and activities.
‘Hello, Janet, what can we do for you?’ Jo asks breezily, as she answers the phone to a 71-year-old single pensioner. ‘Take Taurus out? No problem!’ she replies. Taurus, a four-year-old Labrador, is Janet Penton’s cherished companion. But a recent fall has meant she can’t
exercise him. Ten minutes later Jeremy Smith, 44, one of RSM’s 140 volunteers, is on her doorstep. Taurus bounds down the path, catching a frisbee that Jeremy has thrown for him.
‘It isn’t a chore, it’s a joy,’ says Jeremy, who devotes weekends and quite a few evenings to voluntary work with RSM.
‘Oh, when you come back, could you take a look at the hinge on my cupboard,’ Janet shouts as man and dog bound across the village green.
‘No problem!’ Jeremy yells – grinning as he gives a mock salute.
‘He’s such a lovely man, nothing is too much trouble,’ says Janet, who has debilitating diabetes. ‘I’m always afraid of falling when I take Taurus out, but Jeremy encourages me to do it when I am able, and comes with me to see I don’t take a tumble. That way I don’t lose touch with other pensioners who walk their dogs. ‘Isolation can be a terrible thing. Jeremy also takes me to the village luncheon club – we pay £3 for a three-course meal. Without his help I would soon have to go into a care home. But what would I do without Taurus? This suits me fine. I can still look after myself. And RSM sees to the things I can’t do.’
As Jo and Andy field yet more phone calls, applause filters through from a room next door where John Norris, 70, has laid out the collection of model cars he has fashioned from balsa wood. A 1959 Ford Zephyr, an Austin from the Sixties, each lovingly fashioned in intricate detail.
‘I enjoy teaching others – it’s enriched my life,’ he says, as his class settles down with fret saws and scalpels.
In the office, Jo is phoning Stephen Whitehead (right), once a financial adviser, now one of her handymen volunteers. He is off to fix the guttering for Gay Eastwood, 74, who has lived alone since her husband Brian died 19 years ago. She has relied on Stephen to take her to hospital appointments since being dignosed with breast cancer.
‘I have just had a letter from my oncologist saying that the RSM exercise class I attend has been really beneficial,’ she says, as she shows Stephen where her ladder is stored. ‘Why am I a member? Where would I be without Jo and RSM? Cooped up at home, brooding, just another isolated woman. It’s been a real godsend for me.’ Back at the centre, Andy takes the last call of the evening. It is from Geoff White, explaining he can’t make his usual classes this week because he is so busy. Andy grins as he puts down the receiver.
‘A year ago Geoff couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t walk, so it’s a joy to hear him say that he is busy. RSM must be the one club that is actually happy when its members say that they are too busy to come. For us, that’s a result: it proves we are getting it right.’
Join the movement
In January we asked if any readers were interested in starting a ‘village’ scheme like the one we featured in Boston, USA – similar to Rotherfield St Martin’s set-up. Hundreds of you responded and in June many gathered at Saga’s HQ for a seminar to plot a plan for the future. If you’d like to be a part of this budding movement, and potentially help to create a ‘village’ set-up in your area, do please get in touch.
Just send your name and contact details, an email address especially, and a brief description of any skills or experience you think could be relevant. Apologies, but we’re unable to engage in detailed correspondence just yet. Email: Villages@saga.co.uk Or write to: Saga Villages Project, The Saga Building, Enbrook Park, Folkestone, Kent CT20 3SE
This article originally appeared in Saga Magazine.
Photographs by Eleanor Bentall.