Interview with BGS Special Medal Winner Marie Mitchell, Volunteer for Versus Arthritis

The BGS Special Medal is awarded to a non-clinical professional who has made an outstanding contribution to promoting the health and wellbeing of older people. It recognises that the winner has made a major contribution in their work supporting the wellness of older people throughout society.

We are delighted that this year’s winner is Marie Mitchell, who travelled from Northern Ireland to attend the BGS Autumn Meeting Evening Reception in Leicester on 7 November 2019. We spoke to her after the event to find out more about her achievements, motivations and reflections on her role as a volunteer at Versus Arthritis (formerly Arthritis Care).

Can you tell us about your volunteering role at Versus Arthritis?

My principle role in Versus Arthritis at present is working in the community delivering self-management skills to people living with chronic pain and long-term conditions.

There are a lot of fantastic charities to work for, why did you choose Versus Arthritis?

I chose Versus Arthritis as I watched my mother living with arthritis - rubbing gels and creams on her joints to try and get a night's sleep. There was a local branch in my home town and I joined it to try and find more information about the condition. Here I am almost 34 years later still involved with the charity.

What are the specific challenges faced by people living with arthritis?

There are lots of challenges faced by people with arthritis. These include long waiting lists to see a rhuematologist in the first place, followed by long waiting lists for joint replacements. There is a lack of facilities (such as hydrotheraphy pools, continuous physio, etc) and issues around accessibility to public buildings and suitable transport. There is also a lack of understanding about the condition among people who do not live with the disease.

How many Versus Arthritis volunteers do you have in your area and how do they support people with Arthritis?

Versus Arthritis has approximately 45 training volunteers at present, but there are more Staying Connected volunteers, Hub Volunteers and Branch & Group volunteers. Hub Volunteers provide information at touchpoints in hospitals and medical centres. Branch & Group volunteers provide help and support through social networking to help with loneliness and isolation, and the Self-Management volunteers work in a group setting on a one-to-one basis.

What achievement or achievements are you most proud of?

I am proud of many of things I have achieved in volunteering, but there are a few special moments that I am especially proud of. My husband and I attended a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace which came about through my involvement in the charity. As a sponsored fundraiser I also did a zip slide across the River Lagan in Belfast. This was scary but I am proud to have done it!

Together with the Project Manager for Staying Connected (Mary McConville) we travelled to Leeds University to train volunteers for a befriending project they were doing, which was similar to our Staying Connected project, and of course the icing on the cake has been receiving the BGS Special Medal.

In your opinion what are major areas of concern for older people living with Arthritis?

Older people living with arthritis have many concerns. These include fear of how the condition will affect them in the future and what their life will be like when they can no longer live in their own home. Loneliness and isolation can also be a concern if they have no family living close by; some people I have met see no one other than their carers on a daily basis.

If you had one message for BGS members what would it be?

There are too many people with arthritis who are living in pain without access to good enough care, treatment or support. Too many people accept the daily pain, fatigue and isolation that arthritis causes. Too many dismiss it as 'just a bit of arthritis'. But we shouldn't accept it. It takes us all to work together to fight this condition. We need researchers, healthcare professionals, the Government, carers and people with arthritis working together to defy arthritis. Together we are stronger.

What does winning the BGS Special Medal mean to you?

Winning the BGS Special Medal means so much to me. It was unexpected and to receive this for doing something that I have really enjoyed is incredible. My sincere thanks to Versus Arthritis Northern Ireland for nominating me and to the Trustees of BGS for selecting my nomination. I am sure all nominations were worthy but I am delighted mine was chosen.

This interview was originally published in the BGS Newsletter, December 2019.