Mary Nally

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2009
This description of Mary Nally's work was prepared when Mary Nally was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009 .


Mary Nally is building structures that keep older people engaged in their communities and active contributors to society. She is bridging gaps between generations and disparate populations, placing older people as advocates for other isolated populations.

The New Idea

Mary is tapping into an underutilized demographic bounty by creating active contributors among the aging. She is combating loneliness and isolation by bridging gaps between generations and disparate populations, and engaging older people in programs to help other people in need. Her approach is three-pronged: activities at the local level; national support services by phone, and links to the broader world through matching programs with new immigrants. These activities are a basis for knowledge gathering that is channeled into a more articulate and insistent voice for older people in national policy-making. Mary equips older people to be service providers in social initiatives, including a national helpline for lonely and depressed older people that systematically gathers information on the population. She has established complementary programs that bridge two growing demographic groups, employing senior citizens to teach conversational English to new immigrants, another frequently isolated group. She is channeling the learning and experience gathered from these elements into plans for national and international expansion of her work. She is building structures that keep older people engaged in their communities and place them as advocates for other isolated people, tapping an underutilized population group to build communities of healthier older people who are a willing and able part of society, and serving as an unusually effective advocate for the concerns and needs.

The Problem

Older people are one of the world’s most rapidly growing population groups, and also one of the most voiceless. Their lack of a voice leads, in turn, to social neglect and inattention in policy-making spheres. Issues of particular consequence for older people are often unaddressed, and there is inadequate infrastructure in place to care for elderly populations. Also, many older people live in “long-stays” (nursing homes) that offer little more than an expensive place to wait for death. Long-stay facilities are far more expensive than home care or programs that work to slow the decline of the aging through preventative measures or activities for engagement, but little attention is given to the search for more attractive and effective options.

There’s a self-perception and social perception of the elderly as powerless. There is little focus placed on the “soft matters” beyond physical health, such as loneliness, isolation, and declining productivity. Once people retire from the working world in Ireland there are few places for them to contribute or be active members of society. Their roles in society are much diminished.

Older people are a valuable resource wasted. Newly arrived immigrants are another rapidly growing demographic group in Ireland, with a full tenth of the country’s current population born elsewhere. Ireland has recently experienced the highest annual rate of immigration (primarily from Eastern Europe, Nigeria, and China) since 1996. New emigrants often suffer, because they have very limited skills in conversational English, and there are very few free, or readily affordable, training programs that address that need. Unfortunately, the integration of new immigrants into Irish society is correspondingly delayed.

The Strategy

Mary has built nimble organizations that operate in a continuing state of evolution. Her work tackles the needs and issues of the elderly through a tripartite, ever-broadening approach—a foundation, Third Age, that offers daily engagement activities with other older people on a local level, a separate organization that offers support in the form of a helpline operated by fellow older people across the country, and programs linking elders with another isolated demographic group, recent immigrants from around the world. Mary began her work for older people in a modestly scaled way to meet an obvious need in her home community among people who felt adrift after retirement. Over the years, however, that local undertaking has evolved into a multi-faceted venture that enables older people to contribute and thrive.

With identities and societal roles tied deeply to jobs and careers, the transition to retirement leaves many older people feeling useless, lonely, and removed from the bustle and engagement of their communities. Recognizing the lack of activities and the isolation of many older people, Mary began to offer simple activities in her home community—talks by visiting speakers, day trips and outings to relevant events, including the Senior Games. Slowly, her offerings began to expand, in response to growing demand, and to spread to other communities, and she now offers a wide variety of activities, classes, and projects (such as knitting circles that link older people and school children). Noting the obstacles associated with a lack of appropriate transportation services, she has also set up informal bus service that brings older people from their homes or long-stay facilities to her local centers.

Upon visiting a project for older people in Italy that established an information hotline for its clients, Mary quickly envisioned new uses for a similar undertaking in Ireland. She tweaked the model from an all-ages volunteer base operating an information clearinghouse and errand running service, to a support service hotline operated and staffed entirely by older people. Irish callers now use Mary’s “Senior Helpline” for advice, to share worries, and to hear a human voice from another elder, intimately familiar with the challenges of old age. Trained by the Health Service Executive (the Irish government’s health department) and the Samaritans, and guided by elderly focus groups, the project began with thirty-two volunteers and has since spread to 300 older volunteers manning thirteen Helpline centers around Ireland, fielding nearly 11,000 calls per year. Calls to the Helpline—available all across Ireland for the price of a local call—are routed to centers across the country that are open on a rotating basis for nine hours a day, 365 days a year. The majority of calls are from lonely older people, and peer-to-peer volunteers are trained to listen and help callers explore their options. Because of the service’s reliance on older volunteers, the program has a dual benefit for callers and for the Helpline volunteers—each helping the other relieve their sense of loneliness.

The Senior Helpline also serves an important data collection function that arms Mary with a wealth of information to use in advocating changes in policy that are responsive to the special needs of an aging population that receive very little attention in the media or in most policy debates. Each Helpline call is logged, and frequency, topic, and tone are noted, and the aggregate data are then routinely shared with relevant staff of the Health Service Executive. Mary has also organized conferences to expose the data thus accumulated and to call attention to the specter of elder abuse and neglect in Ireland. Mary has also used the Helpline-based data to push for better public services for older people, to urge for the development of effective national guidelines for home-based elder-care, and to establish new service structures that would allow more older people to remain in their homes as long as possible (and thus avoid the high costs—both financially and socially—associated with caring for older people in long-stay facilities). Widely regarded as an important expert and a major spokesperson in her field, Mary serves on the Expert Advocacy Group for Older People in the Irish Government, and helps guide the National Council on Aging. She is moving to build a stronger base in data-based information to support her work for the elderly, and she is planning to develop a full-fledged center for research and development in the coming years.

The Helpline has expanded very quickly in coverage and use, and Mary is now fielding numerous international requests to replicate, or help replicate, it in other country settings. She is exploring options for “packaging” and replicating it on a franchise basis to help assure its more efficient and more efficient global spread. She has already expanded the service to the London area, and she has fifty volunteers in place in four areas of New York City and is initiating a similar service in Boston with a perhaps obvious strong emphasis on serving needs of the Irish Diaspora in the United States.

As mentioned above, the elderly are a rapidly growing demographic segment in Ireland. In parallel, very large numbers of immigrants have been coming to Ireland in recent years. Recognizing the overlapping challenges—of isolation, loneliness, and lack of voice—that both groups face, Mary has begun a new component of her work called Failte Isteach (“Welcome In”), to link older people to the broader international and multi-ethnic community and utilize their skills as a resource. She has built an organization that links older people with new immigrants to teach them a skill they have honed for decades—conversational English. In addition to expert familiarity with that language, many older Irish people have considerable free time, and many have a particular empathy with others who are contending with a sense of loneliness and isolation. Mary has created a “training and induction” program and written in-house lesson plans that cover simple, practical subjects including doctor visits, shopping, and paperwork demands. To staff that undertaking, she has drawn upon her extensive database of older volunteers for tutors, and she has asked employers who hire new immigrants for help in identifying appropriate clients for that still new undertaking. She has found that demand for the training and support that Failte Isteach provides is rapidly outstripping supply, and she is thus laying plans for an expansion of the program. Currently she is helping orchestrate eleven centers that are implementing the project.

Mary is also planning to build a national center for research and development for older people which would offer strong support for expanded advocacy efforts on behalf of the population and spur new, home-grown innovations, identify and import new ideas, and train practitioners to implement ongoing and new initiatives.

The Person

Mary began her first career at seventeen, working as a pediatric nurse with intellectually disabled children in Cork, a county on Ireland’s southern coast. Schooled in psychiatry and psychology and filled with fond memories of living with her elderly grandparents, she began a ten-year stint working in a long-stay nursing home facility in Trim, a town in Ireland’s midlands. There she found a special affinity for working with older people. Before she was forty, however, Mary was stricken with health conditions that required her to retire from nursing and left her confined to her home for a full year—a traumatic, isolating experience as a promising career crumbled, that prefaced a difficult period of soul-searching and left her with a particular empathy for the plight of people languishing sick and alone.

Her mother came to live with her in her small rural village and Mary noticed that there was little to occupy her time in her old age. For an older woman who “hated bingo,” there were few options for recreation or meaningful activities. It became apparent that there were significant numbers of elderly people with energy and interest, but nothing to do. Age and social norms had rendered them irrelevant. Mary thus hosted a public meeting to discuss the issue and gauge interest, and was surprised to find fifty people in attendance, clamoring for activities for elderly people.

Slowly regaining her confidence after the traumatic health setbacks, Mary gradually began to expand her understanding of her own capacity to make change. Seeing her early ideas blossom, she began to reach further and think of bigger things than the social events, day trips, and guest speakers that constituted her early efforts on behalf of older people. She tried new approaches and succeeded, and in turn undertook more ambitious, systems-changing projects. While waiting in a supermarket line, she noticed a young immigrant woman struggling with simple shopping tasks because she spoke no English. In a small village, it was rare to see someone new, and she realized that the woman had been staying home, isolated because of her language limitations. She saw similarities in the needs of older people with whom she was working and those of young immigrants, and thus began the next phase of her work.

Mary has progressed from an informal “social director” in her County Meath village to a soft-spoken power player with the ear of the Irish President. After years of working in service delivery, she has moved on dramatically—in ambition and confidence, and in the systemic impact of her work. She is known for her calm manner that belies an iron core.