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Covid may have postponed Alma Bailey’s 90th birthday celebrations, but gifts of flowers abounded. Image: Contributed

Ninety going on eighty

Geoff Helisma

Yamba woman Alma Bailey turned 90 a few weeks ago and, despite the pandemic ruining a long-planned celebration of Alma’s 90 years, a belated gathering is still in the pipeline once restrictions are lifted.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 85 was the average life expectancy for women in NSW during the period 2017-19, but Alma is ahead of the curve, and she says she still feels 80 in her head.

Alma’s lively and thoughtful conversation belies her age, the word alacrity comes to mind.

“People would say, how do you feel being ninety?” she says, “and I didn’t know, because I feel the same as I think I did when I was 80; but I’m not moving as fast … and I don’t have to, anymore.

“I’ve had a whole life of being busy and being responsible and doing things; and it’s nice now not to have to do anything.”

‘Do you count yourself lucky, living longer than friends who have passed away?’

“I feel very blessed,” says Alma. “I just wish Rex [her husband] was here. He died when he was 82, but it was a peaceful thing, because we worked together all our lives.

“We had businesses in Grafton, we were photographers and all sorts of other things … we worked together for nearly 60 years and had a really special marriage.”

Alma’s positive nature shines when she says, “Learning to live alone [is] a major accomplishment of mine.

“I went from living in a house full of people, to being married to Rex when we were 23; [women of] my vintage never lived alone because we stayed at home until we got married.”

Alma says after Rex passed away, “That was the first time I’d ever lived alone; so, to do that and not fade away or collapse or lose my spirit was a fair accomplishment, I think.”

‘Rex was your soulmate?’

“Yes, I think you’re right, that’s a lovely sentiment.”

Now it’s a waiting game for the celebration proper, thanks to the encouragement of her children.

“When I said, ‘Look, I want a family lunch; don’t carry on with this.’, Larry [her son] said to me: ‘Mum, you’ve had such a wonderful life and you and dad did everything together, you’ve accomplished things.

“Think about each generation and think about the people that influenced you in each generation – they are part of the formation of your 90 years, so you should have them with you when you turn 90 if they’re still alive.’ … and that’s what I did.”

Coordinating the local branch of Wrap with Love – “we wrap more than 30,000 people with love and warmth, each year, in Australia and around the world” – for near-on 30 years is a highlight of Alma’s life and emblematic of her character.

And it’s been a family affair, too, involving her sister, Maree, and her children.

In 2010, she told the Independent, “Last year our groups worked on three different projects.

“We sent hundreds of wraps to Sydney and a special project that supplied wraps to GJ Gardiner franchisees, whose people travelled to Kenya to build an orphanage.

“We also gave 40 wraps to volunteer Rae Harrison and her daughter Mandy Chapman, who personally delivered them to bushfire victims in Victoria, along with their own handicrafts.”

In 2009, Alma and Maree collected 800 wraps and many hundreds of hand-knitted garments from groups in the Clarence Valley – beanies, scarves and socks, etcetera – that were sent to Swaziland.

There is an extra benefit for older people who knit and crochet for Wrap with Love, says Alma, particularly those whose partner has passed away.

In 2010, Alma Bailey (left) and Maree Burrows (right) were pictured with (l-r) Sonia Gidley-King, the founder of Wrap with Love, and Jayne Goodes, who was then Wrap with Love chairperson. Image: Contributed

“People who make Wrap with Love have a need to be needed, as well – the accomplishment of Wrap with Love is that it fulfils the need to be needed.”