Age is No Barrier Series: Meet Paula Gilvarry
Posted on 30th March 2023
As part of our ongoing Age is No Barrier Series, meet Paula Gilvarry, 68.
Paula continues to have a busy, varied and productive life. A medical doctor, as a young woman she ran with her husband, Damian, a successful restaurant in Rosses Point, Co Sligo, before finally returning to their day jobs, she to the HSE, he to Bord Failte. Paula worked in Community Health. Her role included nursing home inspection and it gave her a ringside seat on ageism, where she witnessed at times a lack of respect towards residents by staff and carers. ‘I remember one incident of a lady sitting in front of a bowl of cold porridge. When I talked to her, she began to cry and told me her brother had died. I spoke to a carer passing by about this, and the carer said: ‘Don’t mind what she says, he died years ago, and she has dementia’. It was obvious that this staff member had received no dementia training’, said Paula.
The couple has two adult children and the day I contacted they were taking care of their fifteen-month-old grandson Lewis, who lives nearby with their son and his partner. Their daughter lives in Co Wicklow.
Paula retired at age 60. At that time, about 200 asylum seekers were living in Sligo Town, mainly from Africa, supported by Diversity Sligo, a charity helping refugees and asylum seekers adapt to their new surroundings. Paula worked as Medical Officer with them from 2006-2012. Upon retiring she continued as a volunteer. As a keen cook and gardener, she promoted gardening, cooking and socialisation by cultivating produce in polytunnels where the new arrivals could work, learn and meet others. She was also creative in the communal kitchen with other volunteers. “We had a rotten little cooker then, but we made great food, mainly Indian and African cooking’, she said.
English classes for migrants were already being provided by various groups, including Failte Isteach in partnership with the Sligo Leader Programme. At this time too Paula became a volunteer mentor with Fighting Words, a creative writing initiative founded by novelist Roddy Doyle, to help students develop their writing skills. The nearest programme then was in south Donegal, so Paula crossed the border to work with 4th, 5th and 6th classes in primary school and Transition Year students at second level where creative workshops encouraged the pupils to write their own books. ‘I can draw a bit so initially, I was the artist. It really challenged me and I was Googling constantly on how to get the lines right in various cartoon illustrations. Then I progressed to reading the stories which was great fun. Then came Covid and everything stopped!’ she said.
Early in 2022 soon after the Russian invasion, Ukrainian refugees began arriving in Sligo. Paula’s skills and contacts were needed as a medical doctor, as informal advocate and networker with relevant professional contacts. Soon after, she says, the call went out for people to help with language classes and she and her husband volunteered. ‘We got the Failte Isteach text books and we got some training not so much in teaching English, more about the needs of people escaping violence and trauma’, she said.
The couple now separately tutor a small group of Ukrainians each every week in a local café. Paula is clear about the difficulty experienced by those without English and the value of the classes: ‘It is incredibly difficult to live here without English, and it is a difficult language for Ukrainians to learn. Their alphabet is completely different, they find the Irish accent very difficult and we speak very quickly. Some have basic English, others not’. Also those wanting to work professionally in Ireland must be registered with CORU, the body responsible for regulating health and social care professionals - which can be a high bar to clear.
Language fluency, she says, can make all the difference: ‘I have seen people growing in confidence, able to socialise, getting jobs. Ukrainians want to work. They think Ireland is a lovely place to live and many of them may stay’.
Paula Gilvarry says that at her age, and as someone well able to speak up for herself, she does not experience ageism as an individual. But as a group, she feels older people can be dismissed and ignored by young people, and can be treated with a lack of courtesy. Managing life online is another hardship for those who have nobody to help them negotiate its many pitfalls. ‘Also public transport is one of my bugbears. On the train, I have seen older people resolve to stay silent in the face of anti-social behaviour by young people, they are just too afraid to speak out, because they know there is no respect’, she said. She feels that ageism should be tackled at an institutional level with public bodies, including the HSE, offering awareness raising and cultural training around ageism. ‘It is all about changing the culture in so many institutions’, she says.