Me&MyJob: ‘Housing the elderly is my biggest reward’
Geraldine Gilpin, Chief Executive, Abbeyfield Uk (NI)
What does your role involve?
As chief executive of Abbeyfield UK (NI), I am responsible for the operational management of 19 supported sheltered houses for older people and for advising the management board on strategic issues.
I work very closely with an excellent team of four area managers, each of whom has responsibility for a group of houses. Collectively, we aim to ensure that residents are supported to live as independently as possible and that their quality of life is maximised.
As Abbeyfield UK (NI) employs almost 100 staff, and has over 50 volunteers, administration of human resources issues is a major task.
Finance is also critical and I work very closely with the finance manager, monitoring budgets and studying figures.
Governance issues are an integral part of my role, so time also has to be allocated to drawing up policies and procedures on all aspects, from delegating authority, right through to house management issues, such as storage of food.
House maintenance features on the to-do list as well and we work in partnership with Clanmil Housing Association in this respect.
In addition, I am actively involved in promoting resident participation, marketing Abbeyfield, developing relationships with stakeholders and arranging staff meetings and conferences.
How did you get into the position in the first place?
When my children were small, I took a career break, but in 1996, when they were at primary school, I took up the part-time post of regional co-ordinator for Abbeyfield. Abbeyfield houses were managed by volunteers, based in individual Abbeyfield societies, and my role involved circulating information on good practice, arranging training and conferences.
Over the years, it became clear that a professional administration was required. By 2003, it was agreed that the existing 15 Abbeyfield societies in Northern Ireland should merge. I took over as chief executive, with the initial task of effecting this merger and setting up an appropriate administrative structure.
Did you always want to work in this sector in some capacity?
I studied law at Queen’s, but after spending a summer working in a solicitor’s office, I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I had always been interested in the voluntary sector and after a brief spell in accountancy, I became director of Extra Care for Older People. When I was thinking about returning to work, I was looking for a role in the voluntary sector.
What training or previous experience do you have that has helped in your current role?
The legal training equipped me with some very useful skills, including an ability to see key issues and draft reports. Knowledge of finance and accountancy has also proved to be vital.
Throughout my life, I have taken up lots of opportunities, all of which helped to expand my skills base and confidence. While at school and as a student, I always had summer jobs, ranging from nursing auxiliary through to being a waitress and working in play schemes. I also held a number of volunteer committee roles, where I learnt about the dynamics of working in committees.
What is your organisation’s role in the local community?
Abbeyfield UK (NI) is a charity and housing association, which provides a lifestyle for older people which, through support, allows them to retain their independence, yet still be part of the local community. Residents live in small family style houses, meals are prepared by staff in the house and residents enjoy the companionship of eating together. They have their own private room and they can come and go as they please.
And how does your role fit in as part of this?
An essential part of my role is to ensure that the Abbeyfield ethos is maintained in the houses.
What sort of personality and qualities do you need to do your job successfully?
Lots of energy! A positive outlook is also beneficial as the bureaucracy can sometimes be soul destroying — you have to look beyond it.
Adaptability. The role is so diverse that during the course of a morning, I could have to deal with a human resource matter, consult with residents, attend a meeting with an architect, answer a query over finance, have a discussion with a health and safety officer, or deal with a number of other scenarios.
What are the biggest rewards of the job? And the biggest challenges?
The biggest reward is when residents tell you that they are really happy that they moved into an Abbeyfield house and the improvement that it has made to their lives.
Winning the silver award last year for the best retirement housing in the UK Elderly Accommodation Counsel Housing Awards did give me a great thrill and the accolade is a tribute to the work undertaken by everyone in the organisation.
One of the biggest challenges is finance and ensuring that the funds we have are used to the best advantage.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There are two pieces of advice, which I feel encompass a positive attitude to life:
The world doesn’t owe you a living. It’s up to the individual to make the best of what they have got. And, do to others as you would have them do to you.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do the same job?
Get as broad a range of experience as you can. Although you may feel as though you are a ’Jack of all trades’, having a wide knowledge base increases your understanding of all the various aspects involved in running an organisation and it means that you can identify issues more quickly when they arise.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
My main hobby is music. I’ve been a part-time clarinet tutor in the City of Belfast School of Music for over 30 years. I really enjoy teaching and sharing my enthusiasm for music.
I am also a voracious reader— it’s a great antidote to a busy and stressful working life.