Val is the kind of person who brings people together. She’s in her late eighties, and lives in council housing in Wellington. When she sees someone on the bus that she might have seen around her apartment building, she makes a point of stopping and speaking with them. When she hears one of her neighbours is struggling, she sees if she can help. When she knows an important birthday is coming up for another neighbour, she tries to make sure someone will be there to help them celebrate. She doesn’t come across as forward or pushy though – she’s more of a gentle, smiling, caring presence. Val’s short grey hair frames kind eyes, and she is softly spoken.
Val was born in the country and finished high school early because of the Polio epidemic. She found a job in an office, where she worked until she was married. “In those days, it was normal to stop working when you got married,” Val says quietly. In the 1950s, Val and her husband moved to Porirua where they built a house.
When her third child was a baby, Val began to have a series of mental health issues. She was in and out of hospital several times until the 1970s when she was able to go into a half-way home. Unfortunately, her marriage broke down during that time.
During her stay in the half-way home, Val had a job in a shop, paid rent, and tried to rebuild her life. She met Conrad there, and eventually moved into an apartment with him. It was nearly Christmas, and everything seemed magical. Life was looking more positive again, and one of her sons even came to help her move into the new apartment.
Val and Conrad lived there for about four years until they found a council housing flat which was perfect for their needs. They lived there for 38 years. Conrad sadly passed away and not long afterwards, all the building’s tenants were told they would have to move as the building was slated for demolition after earthquake damage.
Val has made a new home once again, this time in a ground floor apartment of another council housing flat. She enjoys living here and feels content. She’s had help along the way from various people and organisations, and she likes to help others when she’s able.
In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown was a positive experience for her: people helped by bringing weekly groceries – she would usually sit by the open window and have a cup of tea and chat with the girls who brought the groceries. Amigos, the mental health group she belongs to, kept in touch with her through the phone. One of her neighbours offered to share a pizza with her – they each ordered their pizza and ate it in their separate apartments – but they felt less lonely at the thought that they were sharing the same experience. They’ve since made it a regular event to actually share a pizza each week. A monthly coffee group was also started in her building by Age Concern Wellington Region shortly after lockdown.
Val has championed these coffee groups and brought many seniors in her building together through these events.
“I’m 88 and I go out a lot. … It keeps me active for my age. I couldn’t just go for a walk – but if I have something to go to, I’m happy to go. I enjoy going to people and inviting them to join us. I enjoy the social interaction: it’s nice to meet others and speak about different things.” Val knows some seniors who prefer not to join some of the events despite Val inviting them. She knows they’re likely isolated and lonely, but she can’t force them to come.
When Val was coming home from shopping with her granddaughter recently, she came across someone she recognised from the apartment and invited him to the next group. “Sometimes they come, sometimes not,” Val says, “but I try to include everyone. This person didn’t come. I hope he’s alright…” She feels he would be better off coming out. Making the effort to go out means getting up, having breakfast, having a shower, getting dressed and ready for the day. “It keeps me motivated and keeps my brain going,” she says.
Val feels positive that she’s overcome so much, especially her mental health challenges. Perhaps having gone through so many challenges has enabled her to have more empathy for others, and to be a more understanding and caring person as a result.
Val is interested in art and many other things. She’s open-minded to new things, and especially to people from all walks of life. When Val first lived in council housing, her neighbours were mostly working families. Although there’s quite a different mix of people around her now, she respects and cares for them all.
Val is a kaitiaki for her council housing apartment building. She acts as a liaison between the council and the tenants. If there are issues or needs, she can let the right people know. Kaitiakis in the Wellington City Council housing flats act as the ears and eyes for the complex. People can go to them if they have concerns or issues, and the kaitiakis can also relay any issues to the council. Kaitiakis are traditionally custodians, caregivers, stewards. They are there to provide a wise balance and promote unity – and this sums Val up well.