Olwen Finlay's story

Author: Olwen Finlay
Olwen Finlay's story

Olwen visited the States in 1973 to research possibilities for low cost aids for older people, as she was concerned about the added pressures the aging population was going to put on the NHS. At the time she was the only physiotherapist in the Royal Hospital, Belfast.

Whilst in the States Olwen visited 45 centres, including the rehabilitation centre at NASA. She gathered information on degree courses, learned about the effects of colour on gait, and was introduced to the idea that colour and art can improve the lifestyles of confused or impaired adults. She also brought home a gel heating pack from NASA, originally designed to keep food warm in space. Olwen immediately realized its potential to provide safe heat treatment for painful elderly joints. 

With the help of the Maintenance Department at the Royal Hospital, Olwen went on to develop many affordable aids and cost-effective programmes directly inspired by the contacts she had made and the things she had learned whilst on her Fellowship. Some of her aids and programmes have won prizes and national and international recognition. 

Over the years since her Fellowship Olwen has been awarded Therapist of the Year 1996, the Hewlett Packard All Ireland Golden Helix Award, silver medal in the Medical Community Award, and was a finalist in the Douglas Bader Award for the design of low cost equipment for older people. 

Through her Fellowship Olwen realized the importance of establishing and maintaining networks and sharing information. In the States she attended a conference of over 10,000 physiotherapists. Coming from a town that numbered its population in the hundreds, Olwen was overjoyed to find so many other physiotherapists with whom to exchange knowledge. She has since established IPTOP, the International Association of Physical Therapists working with Older People. The association now has over 8000 members in three continents. She is a member of several other relevant associations and has authored nine publications on low cost equipment as well as writing 25 research papers and other publications. 

In 1997 Olwen was awarded an MBE for services to physiotherapy, and in 2007 was given a World Confederation of Physical Therapists ‘Leadership’ Award, one of only six to have been awarded worldwide since the foundation of the Confederation in 1951.