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Alison Neill, from the small town of Fairlie in New Zealand, could not have been more astonished when she was announced as this year’s Senior New Zealander of the Year.

“I was so busy, there wasn’t a great deal of time to be following the process,” the 78-year-old says. “I went to stay with my sister for the finals. I looked then at what the other two finalists were doing and thought, Forget about the little lady in Fairlie! To me, my lifestyle is just normal and what all mothers have done over the years.”

According to the website for the New Zealander of the Year Awards, Neill, a trained nurse, has become known as “The Angel of Fairlie” after founding Moreh, a residential facility providing free care for the elderly and infirm.

“I’d been born to care for the elderly,” Neill says. “When I was young, my grandmother was cared for in our home. I knew what it was like to care for someone with a failing memory. I thought long and hard and prayed about it and I decided the Lord wanted me to stay in Fairlie to look after the elderly.”

And so Neill opened Moreh 32 years ago and has never looked back. In 2004, she received a Queen’s Service Medal in recognition of her service to the community.

Lady in the shoe

Because Moreh is not registered or required to be licensed as a rest home, it doesn’t receive any funding from government, but this also means it doesn’t have to meet government requirements and can therefore operate more like a regular home.

There are no “stages” of care so if an elderly person wants to give up independent living, Neill will accept them if she has a room available. “We don’t need to move our residents to a hospital facility in their last days if I’m able to care for them at home.”

Neill normally has 12 to 14 residents, but with the recent Christchurch earthquake, she’s taken extras and currently has 19 residents in the house. She’s housed another four residents in nearby pensioner flats that were for sale and standing empty, delivering meals to them and supervising medication.

“Really, I feel like the old woman who lived in the shoe,” Neill laughs. “I’ve got so many children, I don’t know what to do!”

A helping hoof

Another difference about Moreh is that residents don’t pay fees—Neill doesn’t even ask for a donation. And Neill herself works only for board and lodging.

“I do accept donations from anyone who cares to. But I don’t solicit or ask,” she says. “I don’t fundraise or send out pleading letters or anything like that. I asked the Lord to supply our needs, so whatever He sends is what we are to live on”

“The majority of the residents want the dignity of paying as much as they can towards their keep, and so they will give us a regular amount out of their super. The amounts they give vary wildly but it’s entirely their own option.”

There is, of course, help—from humans and a cow! A small team of domestic and care-giving staff and volunteers come in daily. By mid-evening, all staff and volunteers are gone and Neill and her “family” settle in for the night.

As for the cow: “Three years ago when the price of milk rose so rapidly, I added up how much I was spending on milk and figured I could buy a cow for that much in three or four months.” If there is enough cream (and time), Neill makes butter and cheese.

To teach and be taught

The Old Testament of the Bible records the story of how God told Abram to leave his country for an unknown destination, a land that God would show him. Abram’s first stop was at Moreh. In Hebrew, Moreh means teacher. To Neill, Moreh encompasses the entire philosophy of her home. “We’re always being taught, always learning,” she says. “We learn to get on together, to love each other and live in harmony. We enjoy life and look forward to the reality of eternity. “Unless God is our Teacher, we will only crash and grind through life.”

Go in peace

“I think I have a balanced life,” Neill says. “Some people wouldn’t agree. I know I live a weird life compared to some people but I’m very happy.”

At 78, Neill is often asked when she’s going to stop. “My motivation is to find out what God’s will for me is and to do it. I had a clear direction to go into this. I haven’t been told to stop so I go on doing it.”

Her faith in God overflows in many areas. When last year the Pike River Coal Mine disaster shook the South Island community, the residents were very concerned and wanted to do something. “The best thing is to pray,” Neill said then, and before long bedtime prayers became the norm, with residents praying for needs here, there and everywhere.

“My aim with all my care is to see residents go out in peace,” Neill says. “I want to see them end their days knowing that God loves them, Jesus died for them and they don’t have to fear the unknown.”

Many of the older folk have had some form of Christian teaching in their lives. “One lady was very agitated, so I began singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ while I washed her,” Neill says. “At first she cried, then she started to sing it along with me, and then when I’d say, ‘Let’s sing our song,’ she’d smile and away she’d go. It was something out of her childhood that she remembered and knew and could identify with. It was a truth she desperately needed to hang on to.”

Simply . . . love

Neill tells the story of another resident who was forced to leave home by his father when he was 13. He joined the war effort in his late teens and ended up a prisoner of war. He eventually returned to New Zealand emaciated and worn down, but managed to recover his health and went into a tree felling business.

“A tree fell on him and he lost a leg. He lived here for nine years and I felt I could never mention anything about God to him,” she says. “Two weeks before he died, a Christian girl caring for him asked, ‘Do you know how much Jesus loves you?’ He said ‘Yes I do,’ and the tears rolled down his face. For those two weeks he was a totally different man. At his funeral, we sang ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ It is the only declaration of faith that man ever made, but it transformed his life.”

Neill doesn’t expect any return for what she does, preferring simply to live by what she believes Jesus has asked people to do—love each other.

“I’ve found that caring for people, just loving them and meeting all their funny little needs, gives you opportunities to tell them just how much God loves them. My greatest reward is seeing them realise life is more than a grind.”