Sandra Forster and us: Health & Ageing, Research, our First People, a lifetime of love.
By Prof. Tony Broe; AAG President 2003 – 2006 & founding Friend of ATSIAGG.
Sandra came into my life like a whirlwind over 40 years ago. She took over as Personal Assistant and as administration officer of the Department of Neurosciences at Lidcombe Hospital - in 1978. Sandra was 32 years old, married to her husband Chris for 9 years and she arrived with two young kids in tow, Sharelle and Derryn, and all the confidence in the world. For 40 years Sandra and I have worked, fund-raised and socialised together across Sydney - from the far reaches of the Western Suburbs – Penrith, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Mt Druitt, Auburn, Lidcombe, Bankstown, Parramatta and Westmead – then South East Region – Randwick-Botany and Inner City Waverley Woollahra, Sutherland, St George, Wollongong. We were based initially at Lidcombe and then Concord Hospitals within the University of Sydney - for over 20 years; then in South East Health at Prince of Wales Hospital, the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG) and NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) within the University of NSW - for another 20 years – although we had only planned a five-year post-retirement stay
Aboriginal Health and ageing
The stand-out focus of our time together, particularly after the move to UNSW, was developing the Aboriginal Health and Ageing program and team. On settling into South East Health in the year 2000 – coincidentally the end of the millennium and two centuries post the invasion site at La Perouse - we found that our new Program of Community Health and Aged Care was responsible for the Mainstream Health Care of the Aboriginal people of La Perouse and surrounding areas. Aboriginal Health had been neglected by Prince of Wales Hospital, particularly since the closure of Prince Henry Hospital in the 1990s. The Prince Henry Hospital had not only been a local Health Centre, but also where many members of the local Aboriginal community of 2500 people were employed. With Gail Daylight, Chicka Dixon and the Aboriginal Health-Link advisory group - we developed community services and later research in Aboriginal Health and Ageing; first with the La Perouse Randwick Botany community, later with Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation and Medical Service in Western Sydney, and with the Mid-North Coast Aboriginal communities – the Dunghatti people in Kempsey and Nambucca and the Gumbaynggir people around Coffs Harbour – Sandra was integral to our twenty years collaboration with these communities.
Over the forty year period of her involvement in Health Care and Research - Sandra took on many other support roles; in Ageing, within the Australian Association of Gerontology (AAG); in Rehabilitation Services (virtually neglected in Western Sydney); and the new rehabilitation services we developed together. We progressed into studies on how the Brain and the Life-course determine the way we humans grow old successfully and the inability to close the lifespan gap for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples following Colonisation.
Lidcombe - Where it all began
Lidcombe Hospital and Home for the Indigent:
“The Old Men’s Home” had come a long way since a bunch of young conscripted medical officers - Gary Andrews, Nick Carter, Ted Cullen and yours truly - arrived in the 1960s - bringing radical change, admitting women, setting up the Western Sydney Health Region, developing multiple health services for the west and being voted the top teaching hospital of the University of Sydney by the 1970s. Collectively we had led the development of the NSW (then Australian) Association of Gerontology with Arthur Everitt, Geoff Hughes and Dick Lefroy and of the specialty of Geriatric Medicine in NSW with Dr Sid Sax before forming the Australian Geriatric Society.
Sandra’s takeover at Lidcombe Hospital was in 1978. I well remember the day I met Sandra in 1978: she exploded into my office in Lidcombe Hospital’s Neurology Service and Head Injury Unit. Sandra brought with her an amazing set of life and work skills as well as local contacts and connections.
Sandra at Concord Hospital, CERA, The Central Health Region
The first big job at Concord was to get Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) funding for University teaching and research - setting up the Centre for Education and Research on Ageing (CERA). These were Sandra’s Queen Bee Years. The DVA gave the University of Sydney a 60 room Nurses Home - Sandra’s Beehive - where we set up CERA Research and rapidly filled all 60 rooms – all funded by our NH&MRC Grants and the millions of dollars raised by Sandra, who charmed the DVA, the RSL, Rotary, and the local clubs. Her amazing fundraising was assisted by Helen Xerefos and the ALVA ladies. The donations and bequests poured in as Sandra ran vast fundraising functions where Jazz Giants Katie Dunbar and Susie Cruickshank sang their hearts out and Alan Jones talked his head off. We set up AARF - the Ageing and Alzheimers Research Foundation - which became one of the largest Foundations of the University of Sydney. Our research collaborators included Scot Henderson from the ANU, Jim Anthony from Johns Hopkins University and Jon Pynoos from the Andrus Gerontology Centre in Los Angeles who came to Concord, first for his sabbatical, then as AAG Travelling Fellow.
However, in 1999 I felt that all good things must come to an end and decided to retire from the University of Sydney after a 30-year teaching and research stint mostly run with/by Sandra.
Sandra at South East Health – Prince of Wales Hospital
Trying to retire in my 60s without Sandra was not a good idea: learned helplessness had set in. The formal retirement lasted only 6 weeks when I leapt on an offer from Deb Green - CEO of South East Health Area - to become “Director of Community Health and Aged Care” for the local South East Region. Sandra held the fort at CERA in 1999 until the new Professor - David Le Couteur – arrived to take over during 2000, then she came to the East. My new position as Director of Community Health and Aged Care at South East Health and POWH was part of the service Helen Felton and I had set up in the 1980s for Eastern Sydney, with Morrie Sainsbury. However relationships had fallen apart.
In all this chaos nothing fazed Sandra; she simply shrugged her shoulders, smiled and carried on regardless. Everybody involved in the complex system we managed respected her sanity, wisdom, unflappable cheerfulness and practical approach. POWH Geriatric Medicine and Randwick Botany Community Health flourished in terms of building programs, staffing levels, acute aged care and rehabilitation wards and new patient care teams
Sandra and the AAG
However, that was not all Sandra had to manage. Her life became more complicated when, after taking on the chaos in South East Health in 2000, I became President Elect of the AAG and then President from 2003 to 2006 – following on from the super-efficient Barbara Squires. Sandra had always been a big AAG supporter and I had been on the AAG Council for ten years while at Concord Hospital – a job I could never have done without Sandra’s back up and management. The AAG was then a voluntary self-help organisation with the Council and its members providing administrative and bureaucratic support and the membership fees funding a professional Event Organiser to run our major fundraiser and activity - the Annual General Meeting. Most of this voluntary work fell on the back of the AAG President and their staff members – in this case Sandra.
We could see that the AAG, as a voluntary organisation, was untenable if we were to become a professional operation (and if Sandra were to survive my next six years on the AAG Council). Fortunately, the AAG relationship with the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) was excellent and the advice we provided was appreciated by the DoHA bureaucracy – particularly Kevin Vasseroti, Mary Murnane the Undersecretary of Health, the senior bureaucracy generally and the then Minister for Ageing (Julie Bishop). To cut a long story short, with Sandra holding the fort at the Hospital - as she usually did – I spent a period in Canberra in 2004 documenting the AAG case for a paid Secretariat and for administrative funding to support AAG Committees. This detailed application was successful, with Kevin Vasseroti’s strong support, and the funds came to the AAG with no strings attached. DoHA funding included support for a full-time Executive Officer, a new AAG Student Committee, a new AAG Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ageing Committee (AAG/ATSIAC which became ATSIAGG in 2013) and the ongoing Richard Gibson Research Grant Committee. This funding has been maintained by DoHA since with the expectation of the AAG providing “frank and fearless” advice to the Commonwealth on population ageing in Australia.
In 2004-2005 the newly funded AAG secretariat was still based in the current President’s workplace and day job; it was therefore Sandra who organised office space and support for our newly selected AAG Executive Officer, Janet Angel, in the Prince of Wales Ageing Research Centre, (where Sandra was Administrative Officer as part of our 2000 agreement with South East Health and POW Hospital).
Sandra had her work cut out managing her new AAG support role in 2004-5 as chaotic events followed one another in rapid succession. The POW Ageing Research Centre was small and already packed with its research staff; managing the new AAG Executive Officer proved challenging; previous files were missing in action; lines of responsibility with the prior AAG Secretariat were untested; the new President elect was on sabbatical leave; yours truly, the AAG President, then required 5 month’s sick leave for major surgery – October 2005 to April 2006. The inimitable Immediate Past President – Barbara Squires - stepped into the breech, ran the Gold Coast Annual AAG Conference in November 2005 with the Conference Team, and Sandra continued to run the AAG Executive Office from POWH with her usual unflappable efficiency and sang-froid. The AAG Executive Office finally settled into another site after 2006 (Gary Andrews Centre for Ageing Studies) and life at the AAG continued to move along and advance – but was now well funded for its role.
In terms of her day job as Ageing Research Centre Administration Officer, Sandra continued to raise our profile with the local Aboriginal Community by making many friends; supporting our Aboriginal Health and Ageing Program; obtaining a major Will - Bequest which we were able to bring to NeuRA Aboriginal Health and Ageing and continue fundraising with Helen Xerefos, the ALVA ladies and the Grilliams (RW & JG) amongst many other supporters. She continued her support for AAG/ATSIAC with Sharon Wall - assisting our bi-annual ATSIAC Conference and our subsequent published reports until and beyond the long planned and successful handover to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and members as it developed into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ageing Advisory Group to the AAG. Sandra was made a Distinguished Member of the AAG in 2019 for her long term services and support, and was presented this award at the 2019 AAG Conference in Sydney accompanied by her now grown daughter Sharelle and looking as fashionable as ever.
The years from 2010 to 2020 were not easy ones for Sandra with the onset of debilitating Rheumatoid requiring medication and intermittent surgery - which was paralleled by my own health woes; so we both gradually reduced the workload, handed over the bulk of the fundraising and passed the management of the Aboriginal Health and Ageing Group, the Research Studies and the funds to Dr Kylie Radford – our hard working, long standing, wizard clinical neuropsychologist who became Team Leader and Director of the Program. Despite her increasing physical difficulties Sandra continued to party with her girlfriends, travel to the Gold Coast, Hawaii, Byron Bay, trek into NeuRA weekly to keep us in order, and make sure our newly forming Group – Lifecycle and Longevity Research (still to be honoured and titled by the NeuRA bureaucracy) maintained its profile and defended its funding from the NeuRA management forces that were consuming our research bequest.
The end days came for Sandra - with dramatic and unexpected abruptness. Virtually out of the blue she was diagnosed, in Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital, with disabling, disseminated, untreatable lung cancer. After palliative hip radiotherapy she remained pain free and was transferred to Braeside Palliative Care Hospital for total physical care. It was a rapid and devastating loss for husband Chris, Sharelle, Derryn; her grandchildren; her close family; her vast cohort of friends; the old KGOWS team; the many teams she had left behind from Lidcombe, Concord and POWH; and the new NeuRA research teams that had been recently assembled by Kylie for our ongoing ageing studies with the Aboriginal partner organisations. Typical of Sandra she remained in total charge of her room at Braeside and ruled the roost peacefully and effectively from her hospital bed, until the end. Once again nothing fazed Sandra; she simply shrugged her shoulders as always, smiled and directed operations. Everybody involved in her Palliative Care and her visitors were blown away by her unflappable cheerfulness, her force of character, her love and her acceptance. This was despite the major physical disabilities which were managed with incredible love and support by Chris, her children, and the Braeside staff (led to our great pleasure by her colleague Wendy Gardiner - our ex-POW Community Health and Aged Care Nursing Unit Manager who was now Nursing Director at Braeside).
All our love Sandra.
"Wherever you are up there I am sure you are still ruling the roost"