Sixty-two-year-old grandmother of two, Moira Dennison, began living on a boat on The Thames in her late fifties, and has always found her life’s purpose through making a positive impact on the world around her. However, two years ago at the age of 60, she found herself at a crossroads after the environmental start-up business she’d been involved with for several years failed to make it off the ground, and she was faced with the prospect of being unemployed.
Before deciding to fully commit to a renewable energy start-up business, Moira spent 30 years of her career working for national charities – mostly in Senior Executive roles. She started off working with people who had physical and learning disabilities and then moved across to help people living with cancer or rare diseases, and those receiving palliative care. Whatever the charity, the theme of Moira’s work always remained the same – to help develop the services and organisations who support these people.
Moira’s decision to take a step back from her charity work came when she felt that her time in her role was coming to a natural end – at the very same time that the start-up business she’d been supporting on a voluntary basis for several years, looked like it might actually start taking off. So, she took a leap of faith and decided to focus fully on her start-up venture, which if things went well – would soon turn into paid work.
However, after leaving her role in the charity sector, it quickly became clear that the business was not going to survive, and Moira found herself thinking about where she could turn next.
She remembers thinking: “God what am I going to do when I grow up, because I’ve played Russian Roulette and I’ve lost!”
But, Moira’s feelings of fear of the unknown were short-lived – and she decided to adopt the attitude of “let’s see where life will take me now”, choosing to focus on other areas of her life, whilst keeping her eyes peeled and her ear to the ground for new opportunities.
Moira says: “Two things happened simultaneously after that fairly quickly. The first happened after I ambled with a friend into a small designer dress shop locally, that was selling stuff that you don’t see everyday – and I ambled out with a job! I’d worked in a clothes shop when I was 16 and they were looking for part-time help and I just thought, yeah I could do that, and they gave me a job. It’s great because I get to be surrounded by beautiful clothes and meet incredibly interesting people. I think it was pure serendipity finding this job in a designer dress shop because I’ve always loved fashion.”
“I also get to use some of the skills that I’ve had in terms of talking to and helping people. A lot of people have issues with how they look, and people do tend to open up to you about it. So all those years of setting up various helplines when I worked for charities and answering phones to people in distress made me feel like yep okay, I can talk to anyone!”
Around the same time that Moira landed a job in retail, she was also approached by someone who had found out about her extensive background in the charity sector and offered her the opportunity to be involved in the start-up of a brand new charity – which should be launching in 2020.
Whilst she embraced both opportunities with open arms, she didn’t stop there! Today she is also a Trustee of the Swan LifeLine – the oldest swan rescue charity on The Thames, and a Non Executive Director for a mental health charity.
Although juggling several different roles, much of Moira’s work can be done from home giving her a great deal of flexibility. As a result, she has found herself with more time to visit her young grandchildren, as well as fitting in going to gigs or trips to the Victoria and Albert museum – which allows her to explore her interest in culture.
When Moira first started looking for work, she submitted a few CVs and applications for various opportunities in the charity sector, and often didn’t receive a response.
She explains: “When I first found myself applying for work again in my early 60s, it was incredibly dis-empowering. I’ve got quite extensive skills and experience, so when I was applying for jobs that didn’t necessarily require some of them, I think employers sometimes thought, ‘Well why does this person even want to do this job?’ But I found that it’s just about making the most of the skills you’ve got, and figuring out how they can be used elsewhere. Like my work at the dress shop.
“I have a low threshold of boredom and there’s no doubt about it; I need to work. I can’t afford not to. So I feel like I’m at the stage now where I will make that happen – and for me, it’s about taking back the control.”
For Moira, thinking how she could use her skills elsewhere, largely meant thinking about how she could use her skills to make a positive difference to individuals, groups or the environment.
She continues: “For me, it’s about making a difference – at the Swan LifeLine for example, everything we do is about making a difference. If people find an injured swan, people can use our website and phone up the centre so that they’ll know what to do.
“The new charity I’m working on is also about making a difference to the lives of young, disadvantaged people – giving them opportunities to do things they never thought they’d be able to do.
“And the work I’ve done in the past – for example the renewable energy business – is all about saving the planet, which is the big one because after all – you’ve only got one! I can’t see what I’m on the planet for if I don’t make a positive difference to it.”
Part of Moira’s efforts to make a positive difference, also led her to move onto a dutch barge in her late fifties during her stint with the renewable energy start-up that she was working for. Five years later, she still has no plans to move onto dry land and appreciates the fresh perspective on life that the experience has given her.
She explains: “I mark my time in my boat by how many winters I’ve been here – if you make it through winter, you’ll make it through anything. Living on a boat gives you a different outlook on the world and brings you much closer to nature, so you’re much more aware of the weather.
“It’s also very physical and I need to make sure I work out everyday. This morning I did a 50 minute programme with weights. Coal comes in 25kg sacks, and I rely on them to heat the boat, so I have to be able to lift them. I couldn’t do a burpee to save my life but I can box with weights – and you wouldn’t want to be on the end of a left hook of one of those!”
As well as keeping herself physically fit, Moira has also had to make a slight adjustment to her wardrobe, but she still enjoys keeping it glamorous wherever possible.
She says, laughing: “I’ve got quite a lot of vintage clothes but I’ve had to downsize since moving onto a boat. My criteria has also changed – now it’s; can I climb on and off a boat in it and will it show the coal dust?”
As someone who has a keen interest in fashion, Moira believes that it’s important not to let your age dictate how you dress, or make you invisible.
She says: “I was reading a book recently about older women and clothes and there was a discussion about coercive submission into being invisible – but I think there is definitely a counter movement against that. I think there’s probably a generation of women who grew up in the 70s like me and lived through periods of radical feminism and punk. I think many of us will have kept those values and will still be embracing dressing how we want and being who we are, regardless of age.”
Looking back at her life, Moira says that there are a couple of bits of advice that she would give to her younger self – which stem from the idea of saying yes to more things, and taking a leap of faith.
She continues: “One of my cousins was a trans-Saharan explorer and he offered me the chance to cross the Sahara and I didn’t because I was convinced there were spiders. I didn’t take it up and I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I did. I also think there was a couple of guys I should have gotten together with!”
However, as someone who is no longer a stranger to taking on new challenges and opportunities, Moira offers some advice to anyone considering their own adventure…
“Take a deep breath and go for it! Look at all the possibilities that are out there, because this is your time to think about what it is you want to do. It might not work out, but it doesn’t matter because everything in life is a learning experience – and you’ve got to take all those learning experiences and do something with them.
“In my life there’s been crap times and good times, but it’s all about moving from a place where you’re surviving, into a place where you’re thriving. There’s always a chance that you might have to go back to surviving again, but then you just keep going until it passes. It doesn’t mean that you have to be skipping through the sunlight meadows, but the jobs I’ve done – working with people in palliative care, which is the greatest privilege of my life and incredibly humbling – make you think ‘You know what? I’m just going to make the best of this. And if you don’t like the way my eyeliner looks then that’s just too bad!”
Moira doesn’t know what the future has in store for her, but she does know that for as long as she is able, she will continue to try and have a positive impact on the world.
She says: “I just hope that in ten years time, I will still be actively contributing to making this planet a better place for my grand kids and their kids, because that’s what it’s all about!”
Can you relate to Moira’s story? Do you have a story of your own that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected].