COTA NSW Advocate Val Fell says she is “probably” the oldest person undertaking an online Bachelor of Dementia Care degree from the University of Tasmania. It is likely, as she has just celebrated her 90th birthday, for which she received cards from both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten.
Val’s path to studying again began when her husband Ian was diagnosed with dementia in 2006. He had been a Fairfax journalist for 40 years, retiring as the General Manager of the Illawarra Mercury. In the early 2000s Val noticed his behaviour with his woodworking hobby was becoming obsessive. She had two older brothers-in-law who had dementia and knew the signs.
‘I was very sad to think that we wouldn’t be able to do all the things we had planned,’ she said. ‘I also felt angry because we both became socially isolated due to the stigma around dementia. People would ask after Ian, and I would suggest that they come to see him, but no-one did.’
Early on, Val sought out a support group for carers of people with dementia. She says this gave her a lot of help, particularly from former carers. Some people couldn’t come on the day that group was held, so after Ian died in 2013, Val decided to set up her own group.
‘I wanted to help other people as I had been helped,’ she said, ‘and it snowballed from there. People were asking questions that I couldn’t give immediate answers to, and I realised I needed more knowledge to run the group with confidence.’ She took some short courses at the university, and after she completed those, they suggested she move into the bachelor’s degree.
Hearing Val’s story, it’s clear that she’s always been active. You might even call her an ‘activist’, and certainly an advocate for the causes that come her way. When asked what drives her, she said: ‘My son said: “My mother has a sense of social justice.”’
The eighth of 11 children, Val did well in maths and chemistry at school and had the opportunity to further her studies at Sydney university, the first in her family to do so. ‘I wanted to be a research chemist,’ she said, ‘but once I got there I liked the maths more.’ There were very few women students, particularly as there was a big influx of servicemen after the Second World War, but Val says she never had any problems.
She initially lived at the Country Women’s Club in Kings Cross. ‘It wasn’t sleazy then, although we did have a brothel down the road, it was more bohemian,’ she said. ‘This group of girls from the country would go down to the Arabian café and mingle with all these writers and artists!’
After a few years teaching maths in a girls’ boarding school, Val and a friend travelled by ship to London. There she got a job as a statistician for a project called the Economic Survey of the Cocoa-Producing Areas of Nigeria. She also studied to become a Member of the Association of Incorporated Statisticians.
Later she worked for food manufacturer J. Lyons & Co, doing market research. ‘I saw my first computer there in 1953,’ she said. ‘It was called LEO, Lyons Electronic Office, and it took up an entire floor of the building!’
After travelling around Europe in an old Austin, Val came home and married Ian. She continued to work in market research while bringing up four children, running her own business from home. She was active in the P&C at the children’s school, and became Country Vice-President of the Federation of P&C Associations. She was also ‘the token parent’ on various committees on education matters.
After other community work such as being on the committee for the Wollongong Eisteddfod, Val found her way to COTA NSW. ‘I was already acting as a dementia advocate when Ian was still alive,’ she said. ‘Someone asked me if I’d like to be a volunteer peer educator with COTA, and since then I’ve done sessions on internet safety and consumer directed care.’
As well as working on her degree, running her support group and continuing her dementia advocacy, Val will undertake further peer education and provide one-on-one support as part of COTA NSW’s new Aged Care Navigator Trial in Wollongong. ‘Navigating aged care is an overwhelming project for most people,’ she said. ‘Many people with dementia and their carers are not tech-savvy. I’ll be helping people to understand the system.’
Val has also been working with Dr Lyn Phillipson at the University of Wollongong, and is looking forward to going to the Australian Dementia Forum in Hobart in June to do a presentation on respite care. ‘Respite care is an important part of the dementia journey,’ she said. ‘We want to encourage people to re-think their approach to it, in terms of how it is provided and how it is used.’
What is Val’s recipe for successful ageing? ‘Stay active mentally and physically, continue to learn new things, and don’t become socially isolated,’ she said. ‘And be moderate with alcohol!’
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