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In preparing to address a room packed with enthusiastic gardeners, community activists and gerontologists at the latest BSG NI event, Growing Older: the role of community and gardening in ageing well, (http://www.ark.ac.uk/events/BSGjun16.pdf) head of the Cabbage Patchers, Harry Hughes first question was simple: ‘What on Earth is gerontology?’ Sifting through the sands of an internet search which yielded 9 million results did much to reassure Harry, leading him to conclude: ‘gerontology is good for you – it will stay with you to the grave…’ (http://www.britishgerontology.org/).

It is seven years since Harry Hughes, a carpenter by training, found himself with an abundance of time on his hands. Harry was one of the many men who lost their livelihood following the property crash in 2008/9. Looking for a useful role, Harry started small with a few containers and grew vegetables for his family in his back yard. As time went on he realised that every time he tended his plants he felt better; ‘Busying myself amongst the greens’ made Harry forget his worries, at least for a while. Not long after, Harry heard that his community was in trouble, young people were engaging in anti-social behaviour and older people were starting to feel anxious about going out and about. With the help of a community worker, Harry realised that providing a space for young and old to grow things together might foster familiarity and even solidarity across the generations. Seven years on, the Cabbage Patchers is a thriving community organisation, based in Warrenpoint, Co. Down (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-_jvLdLZBY) . Their youngest member is 5, their oldest 94. Harry sums up the contribution of his organisation to community and to solidarity between generations: ‘Our simple use of the trowel and the seed has taught us how to connect again.’

Harry’s inspiring story of how serendipity led him up the gardening path was perfectly positioned to complement the work of Rodd Bond, an architect and Director of the Netwell Centre at Dundalk Institute of Technology, just across the border in the Republic of Ireland. In giving the second paper at our event at the Cloughmore Community Centre in beautiful Kilbroney Park (http://toplocalplaces.com/united-kingdom/rostrevor/event-planning-event-services/cloughmore-centre-kilbroney-events-space/1399596623665465), Rodd took a macro perspective on the role of community building to tackle a range of global issues; climate change, inequality, migration and, of course, demographic ageing. His presentation was visually exciting, accurate, engaging and demonstrated why small, community projects like Harry’s are vital to build genuinely age-friendly communities, cities and environments.

Our two speakers inspired a lively discussion in this month of weeks: Carers Week (http://www.carersweek.org/) , Men’s Health Week (https://www.menshealthforum.org.uk/mhw) and Volunteers week (http://volunteersweek.org/) , all of which demonstrate our basic human need to remain connected. Rodd’s global and Harry’s local perspectives shared a fundamental message: we are all connected. Our everyday practice in our local community, our efforts to reach out across barriers of age, ethnicity or community, our work within different disciplines (gerontology, geriatrics,  policy development, economics and business) are connected more than we know. Rodd’s message was clear: until we realise that we cannot tackle complex global challenges from our own silo, we will struggle to achieve the level of social innovation needed to make the transition to an older demographic profile.  Harry’s work suggests that perhaps the greatest potential loss will be our failure to see the potential of our oldest members of society as mentors and guides to younger people?

At the start of his talk, Harry had asked everyone to write down their dates of birth on a piece of paper. At the end of the session he revealed that the youngest person at the event was 33, the oldest 86. Born 53 years apart these two women are bound together by a shared human experience – growing older – something that is greatly enriched when we do it together.

The British Society of Gerontology in Northern Ireland is run by Mabel Stevenson, Paula Devine, Lynn Johnston, Robert Hagan and Gemma Carney. We would like to thank Harry Hughes and Rodd Bond, as well as all of the inspiring older people who came to our event on June, 10 2016.