Norma Thompson chairs Swindon Seniors’ Forum, which focuses on issues affecting people aged over 55. The forum recently hosted its first open meeting of the year at Grange Leisure, in Stratton St Margaret, with speakers from Age UK and the University Of The Third Age. Norma, a retired mental health nurse, lives in Pinehurst
SUGGEST that Norma Thompson is one of life’s natural-born organisers, and she’ll laugh but won’t deny it.
The forum she chairs has 212 members and is entirely run by volunteers. There is no membership fee. The forum liaises with a spectrum of local organisations as well as councillors and MPs.
It relies on patronage, donations and fundraising and high-profile supporters include Santander and the Age UK charity.
Norma is originally from Barbados, and came to London as a child with her family in 1962. In that pre-Swinging ‘60s, post-Austerity period, Britain was a rather grey place, unlike anything she was used to. She remembers her initial thoughts vividly: “I wanted to go straight back!” she said.
The urge to help others came early, and has never gone away, whether in Norma’s professional life or in the volunteer work which saw her given a Pride Of Swindon Award in 2015.
After leaving school, her hopes were set on becoming a nurse. She trained in general nursing; the decision to specialise in mental health came later. “I applied to work in the prison service. I worked at Wormwood Scrubs, in the hospital, where we did theatre work and operations every day.
“Sometimes I would do nights, and you would get the patients, the prisoners coming in overnight.”
Some of those prisoners were suffering mental health crises. Some were bound for Broadmoor, the hospital for people described in those days as criminally insane. Their anguish was often immense.
“They were in agony – I’d never seen or heard anything like it, the pain that they were in. I thought: ‘I’ve got to do psychiatric nursing,’ Norma said.
“I enjoyed the work because I was helping people and getting them back into society.”
That work was not for the faint-hearted. “Sometimes you were on your own at night and you were locked in. The officers would come around and look through the window to see if you were all right, but all you had was a whistle to blow!” Norma said.
She later worked in hospitals in the capital. The move to Swindon, where her husband and his family lived, came in 1973. She worked initially at the Seymour Clinic and later at Sandalwood Court, where she remained until retirement.
Norma’s first major volunteer work was with the Broadgreen Community Group, which was backed by social organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Its projects included helping to combat problems caused by the sex trade.
An array of other work undertaken by Norma has included chairing Swindon Women’s Equality Coalition, representing the Women’s Coalition at the Equality Advisory Forum and campaigning on issues as diverse as playpark provision and the future of the swimming baths in Milton Road.
She became heavily involved with the Wiltshire Independent Advisory Group, one of many such groups set up to advise the authorities about social cohesion.
Norma chairs the Eldene Surgery Patient Participation Group and is Unison’s Retired Members Secretary for Avon.
She joined Swindon Seniors Forum in 2012 after attending a meeting at Gorse Hill Community Centre. She soon became a member of the management committee, and has chaired the organisation since 2014.
Norma is passionate believer in the forum, whose patron is Lord Joel Joffe. “It’s necessary because we’re a voice for the over-55s,” she said.
“The more members we’ve got, the more we can take things forward to the MPs and Swindon Council – which, in turn, they can take up with the Government.
“We provide an independent, inclusive forum for discussion and debate on issues and concerns of senior citizens within Swindon.
“Our aim is to make sure that members are better informed on issues including reducing isolation and loneliness, housing, local transport, state benefits and health and social care.”
Loneliness and isolation, according to Norma, is a major problem, and often goes hand in hand with limited access to transport. She cites a study suggesting that loneliness, if unaddressed, can be as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Other issues include fending off scammers and other criminals, both online and in person, and general financial worries.
The forum was established six years ago. “I wasn’t there at the beginning,” said Norma, “but in November 2011 David Brown, representing the retired community service volunteers, and Carol Brownlee, representing Swindon Walcot and Parks Community Group, were invited to the South West Seniors Forum conference in Taunton.
“They decided that nothing like this was going on in Swindon, so they came back to Swindon and decided they would try to set up something along similar lines.
“So they made a list of groups and organisations that might be interested in such a forum and contacted them.
“It was decided that the initial target for the forum was to be a voice for older people, both locally and nationally.”
David died in 2015, while Carol remains a committee member.
Norma is proud to have helped steer the forum to a higher profile, with more outreach events and advertising.
“That was a top priority because we need to be a bigger and louder voice,” shew said.
Like most volunteers for good causes, Norma’s priority is helping to make society better for all, but she readily admits that volunteering is also good for volunteers.
“It keeps you active – it keeps the brain going and you meet people. You network with different communities.It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.” Her philosophy is a simple: “Get involved. Do good. Help others.”
The forum welcomes inquiries from potential new members. Its website is swindonseniorsforum.org.