I Work For...Lady Sally Greengross - The age of the ageing

Maggie Holmes is PA to Lady Sally Greengross, Director General of Age Concern England
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The Independent Culture
I've worked for Sally for 10 years and my relationship with her is that of a friend as well as a colleague. Initially, I was rather apprehensive at the prospect of working for a woman. I felt that men seem to be more understanding of women employees and since I am quite strong willed I felt that I could clash with a female boss. But Sally and I clicked; my colleagues even comment on how unusual it is to see such a bond. A few months after I joined she was helping me move my son into his halls of residence.

Since the With Respect For Old Age report by the Royal Commission was published, there have been constant requests for interviews with Sally. We've also had many members of the public ringing in, particularly in response to the report's suggestion that the older people shouldn't have to sell their houses in order to pay for nursing care - which upsets people terribly. The system is unfair: whereas cancer and coronaries qualify for free health care, people with Alzheimer's, which is associated with ageing, are still means tested. It makes me angry to see that people who have done a lot for their country are now being neglected.

One of the aims of Age Concern is to campaign for improvement in the quality of life for the elderly. This is a busy year for us: not only do we run the secretariat for the UN Year of Older People but we are also co-ordinating the Millennium Debate of the Age, an ongoing forum in which people discuss how they see themselves, their work and their lifestyles in 50 years' time. It's a good way of making people aware of the ageing issue. To me, the most important thing to realise is that we are all ageing from the day we are born. Although I used to visit old people when at school and college, I hadn't had any direct experience of looking after an elderly relative.

People will more willingly support children than the elderly, on the grounds that old people have already had a good innings but, having worked here, I feel that age is immaterial. We are all living longer and are going to have to get used to living in a much older society. The old are an untapped resource in terms of life and experience - they can be mentors for younger people, for example. Of course, some older people might resent being grouped together. My mum, for example, who is in her seventies, lives on her own but, after experiencing an OAPs club, said she wouldn't go back because the other people were too old.

I would like people to take more notice of the elderly, particularly since they will be in the same situation one day. I think attitudes will have to change. When a relative gets old and infirm people tend not to want to know. I hope this will change. We have a number of celebrities, including Stephanie Cole and Richard Wilson, who believe in what we do and are prepared to help out. Both my son and my mother have done odd bits of work for Age Concern: my mother volunteers in a nearby shop and my son has chosen a job which involves care of the elderly.

I'm aware that I must look toward my own future and make sure that I have got my retirement sorted. I've also learnt that healthy ageing is very important and that one needs to keep active. Mind you, looking after Sally takes care of that aspect.

Sally is a great role model. People look up to her for, at 63, she's beyond the official retirement age yet busier than ever before and so fun and enthusiastic. She says that I run her life and that she can't cope when I am away, even if it's just for two hours. She's so busy that I sometimes threaten to send a cardboard cut-out of her to some of her appointments. I sometimes get calls from organisations where she's due to speak wailing "the event is beginning in five minutes and she's not here" but she always makes it in the nick of time. She rarely writes her speeches, preferring to ad-lib. Her husband, who is equally busy, relies on me to tell him where Sally is. I meet his secretary, Kathy, once a month for lunch and we tease them that we're off to talk about them.

I am devoted to Sally, but it's a give-and-take relationship. For example, when my son was playing in a big football match and had left his boots behind at my house, she couriered the shoes round to him. She's been with Age Concern for over 20 years and obviously has designs on retiring one day because she's already said that she would like me to remain working with her. Of course I gripe and groan when a day is going badly, but since I've been here so long I can't really be fed up, can I?