The elegantly dressed woman, brimming with excitement and chatter, is a soon- to-be centenarian, but former ballet teacher, Nesta Johnson, could easily be mistaken for a pensioner years her junior.
Nesta, who lives in Portscatho on the Roseland, was born on March 28 1919 in Yorkshire and her life reads like a movie script from the silent movies that were popular at the time of her birth.
She is one of 3,701 people who are registered with the Roseland Surgeries. One third of them are living alone in one of the most far-flung, albeit stunning, parts of Cornwall; one third are older than 60.
Nesta admits she has “never been lonely because she has friends all over the world”. Closer to home, there is an army of volunteers within her community called the Roseland Surgeries Patients’ Group (RSPG) who are helping to make sure that Nesta can continue to live the life she loves.
At 99, Nesta is the oldest member of the RSPG’s Café Roseland, which meets fortnightly on a Wednesday. The RSPG was created in 2011 following a call from government that all general practices needed to set up patient participation groups.
Simone Kennett, vice chairman of RSPG, became involved after answering an advert to form the group in a local magazine. She said from the very beginning that the members decided that they didn’t want the group to be a “moaning shop”.
Simone said: “We want to be proactive, involve the community and address the issues that we face down here, particularly those issues of rural isolation, very poor transport and a huge number of people living alone.”
More than 20 RSPG activities a month now run across the Roseland, thanks to the 25 to 30 volunteers who give their time for free to run them.
“It’s very tricky to socialise if you can’t drive or have limited mobility. We want to create opportunities for people to get out and about and meet other people”, she added.
Café Roseland is just one example, but RSPG also runs a really popular ping pong session on a Tuesday, a painting for fun group, drama club, walks, and each month the group will run a special event as part of Café Roseland – for example, a minor repairs club for torn or worn clothes and an ‘iPad taming’ workshop.
Simone adds: “Nancy, who is aged 97 has an electronic notebook to order her groceries but is limited to that and would like to be able to do more with the iPad. We also have other one-off events that we’re in the process of planning so there’s no time for anyone to get bored.”
People on the Roseland have also raised £12,000 in just 18 months to appoint a community co-ordinator.
“Members of the RSPG were really saddened that in the 21st century we have vulnerable people who haven’t got that extended network of family, and that we weren’t hearing about it until they were in absolute crisis,” said Simone.
Sir Roger Boyle, RSPG chairman, said they raised the money by launching the 300 Club and offering people living on the Roseland, or registered with one of the surgeries, the chance to join a lottery.
He said: “The truth is that when people talk of social prescribing and village agents like they’re something new, we are doing this now and have been doing this for years. We just need to be better organised and co-ordinated so we can reach even more people”.
Simone said: “Other counties in other parts of the country have run similar schemes – Gloucestershire and Somerset – and social prescribing has become the trendy word of the moment. The government has latched onto this and hopes to have a social prescriber in all communities in the next four years. Well, we didn’t want to wait what would have been realistically six years, so we’ve done it ourselves.”
Community co-ordinator Hilary Box will start work at the end of February providing residents, no matter what their age, with help when they need it and will also work closely with, although not exclusively with doctors from the Roseland surgeries.
Simone added: “If I was in trouble and needed help I could ring a number and say ‘help’, and that call will be answered by the community co-ordinator. This is not help that should be seen as a favour or an imposition on a friend. It is there as a right to everyone who is living in the community of the Roseland and it means we can reach more people. People don’t need to be referred by their doctor to use this service.”
This could be people such as sharp-witted painter and computer user Nancy, or the farmer who is so busy looking after his dairy herd that he isn’t looking after himself, or a young mum who has broken her leg and can’t get to the shops to feed the kids, or Nesta, who is Café Roseland’s “Scrabble whizz” and a raconteur.
Born before the NHS even existed, Nesta is descended from the aristocracy of the Wentworth Estate in Yorkshire – Britain’s biggest countryhouse that played host to King George V and Princess Victoria. The decadence, feuds and scandals that led to its demise have been recently documented in Catherine Bailey’s novel Black Diamonds, and subsequently a string of newspaper and magazine articles.
Nesta said: “I knew there was scandal but we never spoke of it. I remember my great grandmother, who was very austere, telling me when I was eight years old that she wanted to teach me to be a lady.
“She told me ‘a lady doesn’t put her pearls on before five when she dresses for dinner. You must have a straight back, always, and a lady treats her servants like duchesses.”
She also remembers her aunt, “a suffragette who was in prison with (Emmeline) Pankhurst and climbed the railings of parliament.”
The great-grandmother is able to recall how different life was before the NHS and remembers an occasion when the doctor called and her mother told them to pretend that they weren’t at home because she didn’t have the money to pay him.
“It really is wonderful that we have the NHS, we really are lucky to have it”, she said.
Nesta believes the secret to a long and good life is keeping the brain active; she reads the paper from front to back every day, completing the code words and crossword, and Buddhism.
She said: “I’m a Buddhist. The Dalai Lama said in an interview with Desmond Tutu there are three things that you need for a good life: love, generosity and compassion, so it’s simple isn’t it.”
The love, generosity and compassion on the Roseland certainly seem to be making good things happen for its residents.
Find out more about the amazing Nesta and the Roseland Surgeries' patients' group.