Interview with Hugh Fahey, Dublin City Age Friendly Coordinator and Social Inclusion Officer, Dublin City Council

Picture1

Can you tell us a little about how you became to be involved with the Age Friendly Cities and Counties Programme?

Once a decision was taken that Dublin City would adopt the Age Friendly Cities and Counties Programme, it was decided that the most suitable place for the Programme to sit was in the Social Inclusion Office. So as Social Inclusion Officer I began liaising with Age Friendly Ireland to begin planning how this would happen.

Initially, the idea was floated that we would run with one area of the City as a pilot, but the Assistant Chief Executive met with my manager and myself and the decision was taken that we would actually run in all five areas of the City at the same time. This would allow us to create a City Wide Strategy, truly representative of all areas of the City, which would be implemented through five local action plans.

What this meant in practice then was that my role was one of City Wide Coordinator, linking in with the five areas, each of which would have an alliance chair, an alliance group and a local area coordinator. So working closely with my colleague Pat Doherty, the Age Friendly Ireland Regional Development Consultant for Dublin, we have brought the process to the point where we have just launched the Dublin City Age Friendly Strategy 2014-19.

Was the work around the Dublin Declaration key to the City signing up to the Programme?

We need to first understand what the Dublin Declaration means in terms of the work of the City Council. When we sign such a Declaration we’re making a formal intent: we’re saying this is what we will do as a City Council for the City. So its importance cannot be overstated. It is an agreement of elected representatives to say as a Council that working to become an Age Friendly City is now policy and this is what we will do on behalf of the citizens of Dublin. So the signing of the Declaration is not aspirational, it is a formal declaration of intent, it will have to be put into action.

Can you tell us a little about how the Dublin City Programme differs from other cities and counties?

Yes, Dublin City is different in its sheer scale and size and instead of having one Alliance group we have five. But the key piece is keeping the focus on the experiences of the older people in the City is of paramount importance and reminding people that is what the age friendly agenda is all about.

When speaking to key stakeholders about this programme, my line was very simple: We’re planning for our own old age in this City. So when you retire from your job, if you are lucky enough to live into your 70’s, what are you doing now to ensure that you can enjoy a good quality of life as an older person in Dublin City? This rattles some, perhaps they don’t want to think about their old age! Also, what are they doing now to assist their children, nieces and nephews who will in the future be caring for them in their old age? We’re not just doing this for existing older people, we’re planning for future generations of older people. My goal is to live to 90 and I plan to stay living in Dublin for the rest of my life so I really am planning for an age friendly older age!

Our focus in Dublin City, and my personal approach as City Wide Coordinator, is to identify what we have in common as Age Friendly cities and counties. Far too often our focus is on what is different. Central government, local government and other agencies have historically looked at people in terms of  ‘difference’ and funding and other resources have been distributed in this way and as a result gaps and serious problems have arisen.

We need to look at what is common amongst us. If a person is experiencing loneliness and isolation, whether in an urban or rural setting, it is still loneliness and isolation, the experience is the same. What we are doing is identifying what is the human experience for people over the age of 55 in Dublin. The mechanisms to include people socially might be different in the City and rural settings, but the experience is still the same.

In the City we have older people who are isolated in large housing developments – when an older person cannot walk out of their housing estate to the main road to where the bus stop is, they can’t do their shopping with ease, it’s the equivalent of living three miles up a booreen in rural Ireland. The impact is still the same on that older person.

So rather than focus on difference, we need to look at the realities of human experiences, clarify what they are for people and then look at how we can address these issues to improve the quality of life for older people in our communities.

Another fundamental piece that is common to all the Age Friendly Cities and Counties is that we draw the different agencies together, and that we do that in a meaningful way. That means we have to work with senior management and people on the ground who work with older people and make sure they are working in alignment on what needs to be done both across organisations and internally within their organisations.

Can you describe the process around developing an Age Friendly Strategy for Dublin City?

Working on the development of the Dublin City Age Friendly Strategy was a most interesting exercise.

We began by interviewing and engaging with almost 1,500 older people across the City, we got a good geographical spread and a good socio economic spread too. We carried out a series of On StreetConsultations outside post office, outside mass, day care centres and other places where we targeted people from 55 to late 80’s. We also held a series of round table consultations throughout the city. We were delighted that 20% of our respondents are 80+. The most difficult cohort to catch was the  late 50’s/early 60’s because they still look young and don’t consider themselves to be old.  Overwhelmingly people were concerned with their own immediate areas and how they can move out and  about in their own communities to get to shops and to socialise.

We also consulted with over 150 service providers, the people on the ground working with older people, and their views mirrored exactly the older peoples’ views. They know the realities of their needs and were able to voice these needs in the context of the organisational perspective. The complimentarity between what we were hearing from the older people themselves and the feedback from their representative organisations validated the approach we were taking.

That process informed the Strategy document,  together with the views of the Alliance members for the City Wide Alliance. The age friendly model places great emphasis on embedding a respect for older peoples’ rights to participate in their own communities. So when we consulted, part of the contract with the older people was that we would go back to them to give the results of the consultation to them. We are in the process of giving this feedback to older people as part of the process of developing actions plans for the five areas of the city. These five area action plans will then implement the Dublin City Age Friendly Strategy.

What challenges do you think you will face in achieving the goals set out in the Strategy?

In the current climate, there is a shortage of resources. There is a reduction of people working both on the ground, but also at management level. We very often think that it is just frontline staff numbers that have been reduced, but  this is also the case at senior management level, and they are the people who can take decisions and drive implementation.

The challenge here is how can we meaningfully get these already stretched and ‘time-poor’ stakeholders to commit to the programme? We can best achieve this by getting results that demonstrate the impact of the programme, that will keep all key stakeholders on board in the short, medium and long term. And that includes older people themselves – some of the older people engaging with the programme are older old and they genuinely don’t have a great deal of time to wait for change to happen.

Another challenge lies with the ‘younger older’. How do we get them to understand that they can take part in this process of improving their quality of life for when they are ‘older old’. These people have the skill sets to contribute enormously to the project. This is a challenge that we must address. This issue is a direct result of the youth oriented culture we live in, and points to the need for us to redefine what ageing means.

What are, in your opinion, are the strengths of the AFCC Programme? How do you feel these strengths will make a difference in the lives of older people in Dublin City?

The key difference has to be the Older Peoples’ Councils. The emphasis on giving a right to older people to actively participate in deciding on how their lives should be improved is completely new. And the fact that the older person sits at the decision making table with equal status – this represents a huge shift in Irish culture. The focus of the Programme is such that it facilitates the older person to make changes at a very local level to improve their quality of life, and that is a huge step forward and hugely significant.

Ellen Reddin – a member of the North West Older People’s Council and who spoke so passionately at the launch of the Dublin City Age Friendly Strategy – has told me that she been on so many committees and is very experienced and realistic about what can be achieved, but she is very optimistic about the potential for change that the Programme offers. Her optimism is a real endorsement of what we are working towards.

I think the only barometer for success for this programme will be the feedback of the older people themselves. Only they can tell us whether the Programme has made a difference in their lives.