Alison Moss & Magda Myszkowski on Benevolent Living Rockhampton

7 July 2022

As the first stage of the community’s renewal nears completion, we sat down with CEO Alison Moss and our interior designer Magda Myszkowski to talk all things Benevolent Living Rockhampton.

Emma: Alison, thanks for taking the time to meet with us while in Brisbane. First, I’d love for you to tell us a bit about yourself – your background and how you came to work with Benevolent.

Alison: As a young woman, I nursed – that was my first exposure to aged care. As time went on, I tried a few other occupations, then became a parent and did a business degree. I landed back in aged care almost by accident – in a quality management role. Starting in the industry in the 1980s and coming back in the 2000s, I could see there had been improvements, but aged care remained a very institutional setting. I was disappointed by that hospital look and feel.

Back then, Benevolent Living was actually a hostel; people were low care and we offered ageing in place. We did do palliation, but there was a greater sense of energy because people were more independent, we even had elders who drove. Since then, we’ve come to provide higher care, with people coming to us later in life when they’re more frail. Expectations around ageing have changed over time – most of us want to stay in our homes and remain independent for as long as we can.

When I came back into the industry, Benevolent was offering excellent care. We’ve always had a fantastic reputation; in Central Queensland, we are considered the preferred provider. But I wanted us to be more aspirational, to move our community forward. And I was incredibly fortunate to have a Board that supported me to go on international study tours and look at how different countries were doing aged care. I realised what we were offering in Australia was a combination of what had happened historically, how the sector is funded and regulation. Those factors shaped the product instead of what our elders needed to age well, with dignity and respect.

Emma: Were there any international models that really stood out?

Alison: There was Apartments for Life in the Netherlands, where people bought or rented apartments in a vertical complex and came down to the street to use shops and restaurants, banking facilities and libraries – all of which were open to the public. They were living in a thriving community, not an isolated and gated one. New Zealand had a continuum of care model, with independent living villas, assisted living apartments, residential aged care and common spaces all on one site. Then there was one in San Francisco – a seniors living arts community – I would have loved to visit, with a resident artist and gallery called Ruth’s Table and enough scale to have all different types of clubs for their residents to enjoy.

Returning home, I decided I wanted to transform an outdated care model and develop a seniors’ living community that was vibrant and interconnected.

Emma: Magda, can you share how you came to work with retirement and aged care – and Alison and the team at Benevolent?

Magda: My interest lies in creating spaces that provide the best quality of life, that evoke memory and are beautiful – where you feel valued and comfortable and want to return. I have a great deal of respect for the people living and working in aged care and really try to translate those values into their interiors.

Emma: Benevolent Living’s mission is to empower people to live with health, wellness, purpose and meaning – with art central to achieving this. Alison, can you expand on Benevolent’s connection with the arts, and how creative programming benefits your residents?

Alison: From the very beginning, we wanted to ensure our community remained connected. There’s a dual rationale behind our arts strategy: our history, with the Rockhampton Benevolent Home Society set up at Rockhampton’s School of Arts by 10 local women seeking to support impoverished migrants in 1866, and our present-day desire to be a vibrant and connected place for our residents. I remember John Deicke talking about filtered engagement with the broader community and the arts is a great way to achieve that. We’ve already dabbled in programming like intergenerational playgroups and music classes, and the health benefits of engaging with art are well-documented. Regardless of age, it helps with being mindful and alleviating isolation, anxiety and depression. An arts community not only gives joy but inspiring surrounds. So it seemed a natural fit for what we were trying to achieve.

Emma: And how will the renewal enable you to grow that sort of programming?

Alison: Prior to the redevelopment, our spaces were very limited. We see Benevolent as belonging to the Rockhampton community; the new spaces we’ve built will be for our residents and the broader community to use. We’ve made our money from the community over the years, the funds for our building have been raised with them. So we see our site as a community asset. Deicke Richards has collaborated with us to work through our space issues and look at what we can offer to nurture an arts community – what we landed on was a gallery, chapel cinema and arts workshop as well as a town hall and learning hub. With these spaces, we’ll be able to run different types of activities for elders and locals alike.

Magda: We share Benevolent’s vision for seniors living in integrated villages. During the design process, we worked to scaffold life with gardens, community and connection – and without barriers. We sought to create a place that is inclusive and educates the broader community about living a full life within our abilities; that enables a range of experiences, from quiet reflection to active engagement, through landscape; and encourages community participation through enhanced space and legibility.

In terms of built work, that has translated to The Terraces, which provide boutique residential aged care across three storeys, with 12 one-bedroom apartments and 24 resident suites as well as shared spaces such as a lounge, dining room and kitchen servery with gorgeous views. Building B is a four-storey independent living unit with 40 apartments that comply with gold and platinum Liveable Housing Design guidelines. It also has a club space for all residents with a beautiful lounge and dining space plus a demonstration style kitchen; there’s also a bar with billiard table and gym and wellness centre. We’ve also refurbished existing buildings that comprise the first interface for community engagement and visitors are welcome in the reception area, café, chapel / cinema and art gallery.

Emma: Has the initial vision changed at all over the course of the five years as development?

Alison: It has evolved. We initially wanted a site where elders with dementia could move as freely as possible and we’ve certainly ensured that through the design of perimeters and spaces. People with dementia can come down to our town precinct and be safe. We did move away from the idea that people with memory loss could move freely around the whole site, but there will still be far more expansive spaces where they can safely engage with the broader community. I think with the arts too, initially we said we wanted to be an arts community, but since then my eyes have been opened up to the types of activities we can run onsite. We planned the gallery and arts workshop, but then we took the added step of developing a creative arts strategy – that has put a framework around what we can do. With that planning in place, we can deliver on the vision.

Emma: The first stage launch is upon us, as is the first Benevolent Living Rockhampton art exhibition. Can you tell us a bit the intention behind the exhibition space – how will it be of and for the local community?

Alison: Our initial conversations were with people in our region, with the idea of having a number of different venues that would add to Rockhampton. Our gallery will showcase the work of people with a connection to our community, mission and values. We’ve had Magda curate our first exhibition, which is CQ Artists Collective – an installation of work from artists across the region. Our second show is in the works, with local photographer William De Bois, and we’ve already had a local artist express interest in our third. The CQ arts community is quite excited. And there will be opportunities to work with other local entities; Jonathan McBurnie at the Rockhampton Museum of Art, we’ve met with him, and we’d love to collaborate with other galleries, museums and community groups in the region.

Magda: The art journey started a bit earlier than CQ Artists Collective, because Benevolent was interested in incorporating art into the new spaces. We purchased a suite of artworks with the assistance of Benevolent Living’s independent art consultant, who has a lot of contacts in the region. Because art has the power to activate our sensory responses and encourage neural connections directly connected with our emotions, it can be so meaningful for those living with dementia and memory loss – sparking a moment of clarity or a memory of loved ones and old times. For artists, we briefed an overarching narrative of optimism and hope; they were invited to celebrate life and depict the world in a way that was calming, passionate and playful. All the artworks selected reinforce the locality of Rockhampton, linking back to that all-important sense of home.

Emma: Moving across time, what kind of role would you like Benevolent to play in the creative life of Rockhampton? What kind of legacy would you like to have in the community – both your own at Benevolent and in the city you call home?

Alison: What we’re doing is an Australian first. A lot of aged care providers offer arts therapy, but on the scale of what we’re trying to achieve, I do believe it is a first. What I’d really like to achieve is a sustainable model, and for our community to be known for the arts, with activities for all of Rockhampton. I want what we’re building here to be a truly vibrant place with a holistic approach to ageing, where people can have purpose and meaning in their days and feel real connection to the world around them.

It’s a circular approach. Through promoting our new spaces and programming in the community, we’re attracting volunteers to work alongside us as well as artists to exhibit and program for our residents and the broader community. It really is about connection and community, friendship and support. Whether it’s through family, friends, intergenerational activities with schools, Rotary, Legacy, our own Cycling Without Age chapter – the sky is the limit.

And that’s the transformational change piece. It’s been a tough few years in aged care due to COVID-19. But our team is very excited about the buildings coming online; we’ve even collaborated with local artist Veronica Zeal on a staff artwork.

I’ve been with Benevolent Living for over 20 years now, and I’m proud of our history. Benevolent was established in 1866 and what’s happened ever since is one woman has handed over to another; I’m the seventh to have worked in my role since the Benevolent Society, as it was known then, started. When we’re making decisions, I do wonder whether the women who founded the Society would be proud of what we’re doing. So my vision is to transform the way we age and deliver care, but also to preserve their values and proud tradition of service.

Our partnership with Deicke Richards has been key to achieving this. We selected the team for their understanding of our brief and aspirations for our community. At their initial presentation, they spoke about how elders would live, work and play in their spaces – and fleshed out the themes of life without barriers, integration with nature, filtered engagement with community and the arts. They have spent the design phase listening and using their experience and expertise to deliver our vision. For this, we are thankful.

Learn more about Benevolent Living Rockhampton here.