Neighbour Aid Backs Maureen’s Long Reign

Maureen Jessop moved into her Blacktown home well before Elizabeth II became Queen and, like the world’s longest-serving current monarch, she’s still there.

It’s the only home she has known in her adult life, and after more than 70 years she has no plans to move.

When she first walked through the front door with her husband Bob in 1948, five years before the Queen’s coronation, Blacktown was largely open fields and her street had no gutters or footpaths.

She has seen it change into a busy, modern city in front of her eyes. It became part of her, and remains so almost 30 years after her husband’s death.

What enables the spry, cheerful 92-year-old to stay there, apart from her own fierce sense of independence and the support of a loving family, is Blacktown Neighbour Aid.

Its mission is to help hundreds of people like Maureen to stay connected with their local communities and to stay living independently in the homes they have grown to love.

Maureen looks forward to the fortnightly visit from her support worker Julie, who takes her shopping and to medical appointments.

“Julie looks after everything; she’s tremendous,” she said. “I often think I could leave my shopping to Julie; she knows what I want. I’d hate to have to do it on my own.”

The former hairdresser considers it “extremely important” to remain in her house.

“I’ve got completely used to the area, even though it has changed so much. I feel comfortable being so close to medical facilities and public transport. All of those things are very important. As you get older you get a bit more set in your ways. You don’t like to move.

“As much as I love visiting my family, I don’t want to go and live anywhere else.

“I hope not to ever have to rely on anybody.”

Maureen has three children living in Sydney or its fringes, as well as five grandchildren and “about 11” great grandchildren.

She sees plenty of them at weekends but it’s during the week that she appreciates the help of Blacktown Neighbour Aid, which is funded by the NSW Health Department and the Parramatta Diocese of the Catholic Church.

The service arranged for her to learn how to use a mobile phone, and now she enjoys video calls with her grandchildren.

Neighbour Aid, now in its 30th year, assists individuals one on one as well as groups.

Support workers typically take people shopping, to exercise classes, medical appointments, the hairdresser and occasionally on visits to the cemetery to remember loved ones.

Unlike community transport services, which drop people off and pick up them up a couple of hours later, a support worker is on hand the whole time.

There’s a mini bus for weekly outings each Tuesday; a driver and a support worker chaperone up to 10 clients who might go to a local club for lunch or to a movie or a show.

There are weekly hydrotherapy and swimming classes at pools in Stanhope and Blacktown.

The Covid-19 pandemic put a temporary stop to weekly exercise classes but organisers even found a way around that, employing a fitness instructor to make 45-minute videos involving mainly chair-based exercises.

The videos were dropped off at people’s homes once a week.

Major events are celebrated, too, including Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Melbourne Cup Day and Christmas Day.

“It helps them to keep their independence,” said manager Deb Woolacott. “I often hear them say they don’t like to bother their sons and daughters because they are too busy, and this helps them feel independent without being a burden on anybody.

“Others might have been nursing a loved one for a few years who has passed away, and this helps them get back into the community again. It’s a social connection.

“As you get older and a bit more isolated you can become almost invisible. When you chat with them you can see them really open up and blossom as they’re talking.

“I had one lady telling stories while her daughter was there, and the daughter kept saying, ‘I never knew that, Mum’.

“We have plenty of people in their 80s and older who still want to get out and about. They’re not content to sit home and watch TV all day. I call them the Life Be In It brigade.”

The service is open to all people on some form of pension; ages range from 65 to 94.

None of it would be possible without the 32 volunteers who assist five paid staff.

The volunteers range in age from 20 – students giving their time while studying community services – to 82. They include mums who do their bit around school hours and a theatre nurse who volunteers on one of her days off every week.

The longest-serving volunteers, Bernadette McKay of Blacktown and Rose Bililis of Seven Hills, are 28-year veterans.

“We couldn’t do it without them all,” said Deb Woolacott.

Staff try their best to match up volunteers and clients around shared interests and personal preferences.

“When you ask people what they want, 98 per cent of the time it’s two things – to stay healthy and to stay in their own home. If we can help them achieve that it makes it all worthwhile. And along the way we like to give them a bit of fun in their lives.”

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