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Staff Member Mary with a group of attendees at a workshop

Independent Living Kaumātua Service

Mary Gush is the Senior Community Connector (Māori) for Independent Living's Kaumātua Kuia Ki Otara Roopu  (Elders Group of Otara) – a vital community service providing socialisation and cultural opportunities for our older Māori population in South Auckland.   

Mary, tell us about yourself - your prior work and personal experience that has helped you succeed in your current role: 

I have an extensive and eclectic background in community development and all my experiences have contributed in  one way or another to this role. 

I started the first successful shopping centre Ambassador Scheme in NZ, employing 85 long term beneficiaries on short term contracts to look after Otara Town Centre.  Over 90% of them subsequently found full time employment and didn’t go back on benefits!  They loved having the freedom to make their own choices in life and to have their Mana enhanced    

I served as an elected member on the Manukau City Council and Auckland Council over a period of 15 years, where I supported Community Groups to provide their valued services to our communities.  This included a lot of advocacy work to people disadvantaged by lack of education or even language barriers to do basic tasks to make their lives easier.  I believe this experience is what has really helped me understand some of the challenges that face our elderly in particular.  My reward for doing this work is to see our people happy and growing in confidence. They are now understanding that  they can determine their own future and  realising the value of relationships. 

What do you see is the key purpose of the Kaumatua Kuia ki Otara Roopu?  

Bringing Kaumatua & Kuia (65 years +) in the areas of Otara, Papatoetoe &  Māngere out of their homes and back into the Community to overcome isolation, depression and for some, total disconnection. Prior to the service, there was very little in the way of social activities in the region for Elderly Māori, driving increased loneliness and poor mental wellbeing. 

My role is to show our members that they are valued in our community by networking with other groups in the Community and letting them see for themselves that other people really value them.   

Many members have a physical or intellectual disability so I do my best to ensure everyone can participate in activities to the best of their ability and enjoy ordinary life outcomes, like anybody else . Members encourage each other to participate in activities and it gives confidence to those who are otherwise extremely withdrawn or shy.  It is wonderful to observe people blossom.  Friendships develop very quickly with participants feeling part of a bigger whānau.  

The service caught the attention of Health Navigator who filmed this video of Mary’s great work: 

COVID-19: Staying connected during isolation | Health Navigator NZ 

What activities and presentations do you offer?  

I offer a wide range of activities for the older citizens in the area and not just Māori. Some of the most popular are Cooking Classes, social games such as Indoor Bowling, Cards and Housie. We also hold exercise classes including Tai Chi and Line Dancing.

Health Presentations are co-hosted with Diabetes Aotearoa, NZ Heart Foundation, Stroke Foundation, Cancer Society, and Te Roopu Wai Ora (Māori Disability Information and Advisory Service).  

Kapa Haka performance on stage

Culture is a key component, including Waiata and Kapahaka peformances, Songs from Cook Islands, and Korowai – both Traditional and Contemporary. We also enjoy entertainment by talented local entertainers, Chinese Dance Groups, Tai Chi demonstrations, and Silver Notes Country Club days.  

We provide the transport or means to help our Kaumatua and Kuia attend wider community performances such as OMAC Concert, Otara Town Centre performances, ACRC Cultural Bus Tour, Flat Bush School celebrations of Matariki & Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week), and the Te Oro Centre in Glen Innes. Our Roopu specially enjoy visiting local retirement and seniors' villages   

But our activities are not just limited to social and cultural events. We also ensure the safety of our Roopu through provision of ICE Cards (In Case of Emergency). These cards have all their important medical information, including NHI number, next of kin names and numbers and any allergies etc.   

What benefits have you either seen or have participants told you they have experienced as a result?   

three of our community at a social gathering

Socialisation and Relationship Building: We have a core group of around 50 members who have come from very isolated homes and now have something to look forward to each time we meet.  They have become more than friends; they are a whānau and behave accordingly with respect for one another being the most important aspect. 

Wellbeing and variety is key to the success of the programme, and it has paid off tremendously with people moving out of their comfort zones and giving things a go.  They are always rewarded by these experiences and their confidence just continues to grow. 

Cultural Appreciation and Mana Enhancement: By providing varied cultural experiences, attendees develop an appreciation of other cultures, their dance, music and food that most have never experienced.  The response has been amazing with real respect shown for those sharing their cultures with our Roopu.  They now have other friends in the Community. 

Understanding the system and making it easier to use and understand: Our Roopu have very limited knowledge of so many aspects that affect them personally such as how the Health System works, what the Council does, and even what they are entitled to from MSD.  Advocacy work for individuals to ensure they get what they are entitled to is a key aspect my role.  Our elderly are key targets for scammers, so assisting them avoid these scams is a growing part of my role. 

Reassurance: Hospital visits and support for our seriously ill members is key. Due to the trust our members have with me, I can assist medical staff when a patient member is unwilling to take medicine or is refusing a treatment.   

Can any community organisations book you for a presentation or activity? and if so, what's the best way to enquire? 

Our Roopu is always happy to receive requests from other similarly minded groups or organisations.  

Simply email me: or call me 021 0326853 for a korero. 

Any Final Words? 

I am constantly being thanked for what I do for our Roopu. All I do is to enable our precious elders to live a good and fulfilling life and I always remind them that it is they who have created the magic we all share.  They are our Taonga with their years of life experience, aroha, respect, wairua. These are the things that make everything work.  I am one person with a huge job that is made easier by people who realise I am human and not perfect.  They are so tolerant when things don’t go to plan, but they make it work!!! 

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