McLeish, formerly an MP and then the inaugural MSP for Central Fife- is well-known for his interest in dementia care. He was the Chair of the Fair Dementia Care Commission, which reported in 2019 and set out a firm definition of advanced dementia for the first time while also identifying the inequality people living with advanced dementia can face in terms of access to healthcare. His skills, knowledge and experience made him an ideal fit for a visit to STAND in Fife's group in Dunfermline. STAND (Striving Towards a New Day) is a support group where those living with dementia, together with those affected by it, have access to peer support from one another and to input from support workers and other relevant visitors.
The former politician, now author and academic, joined the group and listened as the attendees shared their stories.
We also asked him to share a few stories of his own on the subjects of dementia care and, of course, volunteering. With more than forty years since he first entered politics, he's certainly seen some changes:
"Over the last 10-15 years, there’s been a tremendous engagement with the issue of dementia, in two areas.
"One is that we’ve got more families involved, because this doesn’t just affect one person, it affects the whole family, and friends, and a lot of people. There’s been a greater understanding of dementia because of that.
"Secondly, some improvements in the way we perceive dementia and what we want to do about it. I still think there’s a long way to go in elevating dementia to where it should be in our community but nevertheless, over the past few years, things have improved dramatically"
He recognised that services provided by volunteers are a key part of the care picture for those with dementia:
"Of course we need professionals, of course we need hospitals and GP services, but without our volunteers the service would be much worse off. So, in a sense, I want to encourage people- they may not want to do much but, if they do a little, that will count a lot for the people who they’re helping."
When asked whether he could recall any specific grassroots volunteering movements that led to real social change, the movement that led to the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002 was what came to mind as an example to be celebrated and an inspiration for the future:
"Legislation is one thing, but we do need an army of people- to spread the message and provide that amount of support. I think it’s happening, but in times of austerity, in times of stringency, in terms of finance, that can often be overlooked. So in Volunteers' Week, I’d like to make a special point – that volunteers matter, we need volunteers and as a consequence we should always seek to develop that, not cut it back."
As with most politicians, McLeish has served on a number of boards and committees over the years - he's currently on the committee of the Scottish Football Supporters Association and the board of the National Mining Museum Scotland Trust. Like many who do it, though, he doesn't necessarily recognise the description of himself as a volunteer, thinking of his work as a core impetus:
"I've never been a volunteer. I've spend fifty years in public service, always as an elected official or, as now, in public service. It's a state of mind.
"If you can serve in any particular way, as I did, or if you can give or care, tha's a big part of not only your life but a way you can contribute to others".
If you’re looking for help to find an opportunity that you can fit around a busy schedule and need a bit of guidance, contact FVA at [email protected] and our Volunteering Development team will help you find the right role for you.