In recent years, Gordon Stuart Sutherland has had a few falls. At 94 years old, Gordon is strong and active but his balance increasingly fails him. “I fell in the garden a few weeks ago when I was taking some recycling outside. I called for help, but no one heard me. All the neighbours are at work during the day. I scooted to the carport and luckily I was able to use some steps to help me get up.”
Gordon is independent and doesn’t like to ask anyone for help, but as he became less able to walk on his own, he was referred to Age Concern’s Companion Walking Service. He was matched with volunteer Julie, and the two have been going out for walks since March 2021. “Julie’s just lovely. Walking helps me stay fit, and it helps fill my days. It’s something to look forward to. We stop at a café down the road sometimes.”
Volunteer Julie has nothing but praise for Gordon. Julie takes his arm and they go for long walks together when Gordon feels up to it. At other times, they drive part way and just take a short walk together. “He’s always pleasant. Despite hip pain, macular degeneration and balance issues, he never grumbles. He’s had such an interesting life, and we enjoy our walks together. Sometimes we bump into neighbours and it’s good for Gordon to stop and chat with them. When we walk around the neighbourhood, it often triggers memories and we talk about the past.”
Gordon was born on Armistice Day, nine years after the end of the First World War. He arrived early, and his grandfather said he looked like a little crow because of his Aquiline nose. Gordon smiles at the recollection. “I nearly died when I was eight because of an abscess on my lungs. I was so weak I fell off my horse while moving cattle with my dad. Hospitals were different then. But after eight months in the hospital, I came out stronger than ever.” When he was 12, the Second World War broke out. Gordon and his brother were sent to help on the neighbour’s farm for two years as the farm hands had gone to war. His father said: “You help people. Don’t you dare ask for money.”
As a young man, he was part of the expansion work of the RNZAF Base Ohakea, near Bulls, where pilots were trained. Not long after, he was part of the Korean War. There, Gordon witnessed the horrors of napalm. He was on a hill, with the enemy on the next hill. They could see each other’s faces. They heard the American planes come up behind them, and then the planes dropped napalm bombs on the enemy. There were huge balls of fire. Gordon felt sorry for the enemy. He realised they were fellow humans. “The news about Ukraine has brought it all back to me,” he sighs and goes silent for a moment.
“I was stationed in Japan after that, and I met my first wife there. She was in the office next door, and we spent a long time looking at one another. We married in Japan.” Gordon brought his new wife back to New Zealand and they had three boys. It was a difficult marriage which ended after 20 years.
Gordon worked in the stock and station industry. First with cattle and meat in Levin, then with wool. When he was asked to move to Stevenson’s head office in Wellington, he was disappointed. “In those days people didn’t say very nice things about Wellington,” he says apologetically. “But when I arrived, I knew this is where I needed to be. There’s so much beauty here. It’s like being in the country and the city at once.” Gordon bought one of the first houses in Churton Park, and still knows he’s exactly where he needs to be.
His favourite place to sit is in the sunroom at the back of the house. The sunshine streams into the room and warms him on this cool day. Barefoot, white hair carefully brushed over the top of his head, he smiles as he thinks back on his life. There’s an exercise machine on the edge of the room, and Gordon demonstrates his daily routine. “I try to do 300 steps a day,” he says as he walks towards the machine. He nearly falls backwards but manages to climb onto the step machine and perform a few vigorous steps. His hips are sore, but he’s convinced that walking and exercise are what keeps the arthritis away. His pale eyes don’t see much anymore, but his ears still work well. “I’ve spent some very good years in this house,” he says. Gordon eventually remarried. Pauline was the love of his life.
He had three more children, two boys and a girl. His last child was born when Gordon was 60 years old. “My second wife, Pauline, brought me so much happiness. I do miss Pauline.” Gordon was widowed a decade ago, but his youngest son still lives with him.
“I’m happy to live here, I never get bored.” Life hasn’t always been kind to Gordon, but he has learned to find laughter and happiness everywhere he can. “I expect Julie will be calling tomorrow, maybe we’ll go for a walk,” he says with a smile.
“Gordon is a bridge to many generations in some ways,” says volunteer Julie. “He has so many interesting stories.” When Julie first heard about the Companion Walking Service, she liked the idea of walking with an older person. Her own father had died three years earlier and she had often walked with him. Julie feels there’s something special about the kind of interaction people can have when they walk together. It’s not face-to-face, so maybe people feel freer to communicate. “We unfortunately haven’t been able to walk much in the last few months because of Covid, but I look forward to seeing how our walks progress post-Covid. I really enjoy my walks with Gordon.” Julie believes that the Companion Walking Service provides a valuable service to older people, and she’s pleased to be part of it.
~ Lorna Harvey, Communications Coordinator