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10th May 2023

How helping an older neighbour had given me much more than a chance to volunteer

As we grow older, we grow more detached from the world, often without choice. However, Manchester tackles issues of isolation and the generational gap with its community programmes, sparking life back into the retirement years.
How helping an older neighbour had given me much more than a chance to volunteer
Photo: Rodolfo Clix @ Pexels

Sat opposite me, comfortably reclined on a black leather sofa, I find a man waiting on my arrival. A look of excitement on his face, he instructs me to pop the kettle on. “Milk and no sugar son”, he remarks with a smile.

It’s a dark Tuesday evening and I’m making my weekly call to see someone by the name of Tommy. Tommy and I possess a unique friendship. Separated by 70 years of age, experience, memories, and life, we met through the charity Manchester Cares. Aged 90, he lives alone and is largely dependent on the support of friends, neighbours, and charities.

Manchester Cares strive to reduce loneliness and isolation amongst older and younger people, an issue which is largely overlooked and under-addressed in comparison to other societal stresses. It was through their ‘Love Your Neighbour’ campaign that Tommy and I met. The programme encompasses a one-to-one friendship initiative which aims to bridge the ever-growing disconnect between older and younger generations.

At the induction meeting I attended many months ago I was asked why I wanted to be a part of the programme. My response came naturally, leaving my mouth before I had time to think. I explained that my grandparents always did a lot for me when I was growing up and now as they age, I feel it important to reciprocate the kindness I received during my childhood.

I expressed how alarming I found the general lack of acknowledgement that so many young people show toward elderly people. After taking care of my grandparents, and making visits to their neighbours or friends, I’ve formed a deeper understanding of the daily struggles elderly people face. It was through discovering this new sense of compassion that I wanted to support the community of South Manchester and help others, like my grandparents, whose monotony is ageing them quicker than any illness or injury.

Those who have had similar experiences caring for a grandparent or looking after an elderly person will share my sympathy. But there are many people who don’t, who feel uneasy around elderly people or worse, address them with the awkwardly condescending tone one uses when talking to a toddler. I always wince in those moments, asking myself whether that person understands that they’re speaking to someone who’s probably lived their lifetime nearly three times over.

My time with Tommy has been great. He’s a real character, Manchester through and through. Growing up in Collyhurst, my meetings with Tommy usually centre on a story of his childhood. I often find myself in a fit of laughter with Tommy peering back at me with a look of confusion, puzzled as to what he said that was so funny. He doesn’t realise how amusing the events of his childhood are, how distant his youth is from mine. To him there’re merely memories of the past but to me they sound like scenes from a film.

One Saturday morning, tucked cosily in a set of blue pyjamas, Tommy told me about his time in the military. As a teenager he was flown out to Sabratha, northern Libya, to join a peace-keeping regiment as part of mandatory national service. “It was a real surprise,” he explained. “Far from Collyhurst, I can tell you that”.

For someone who hadn’t ventured much further than the outer stretches of Greater Manchester it’s hard to imagine what Tommy experienced stepping onto the sand-washed runway in Tripoli. Looking back, Tommy expressed that he hadn’t quite realised the dangers until now, “when you’re a young man at the age of 19 you don’t have the sense of caution you do at 90.”

Tommy has also described growing up during the Second World War. He can still recall the stillness and silence that followed after the sound of an air raid siren, the violence and distress left in the aftermath of a bombing and the push and squeeze in queues for rations. Tommy chuckled and voiced how it wasn’t all doom and gloom, explaining that “many of us young children had a great time, with school only on three days a week and the American soldiers would always give us sweets and chewing gum”, he was only seven at the time.

There are many more stories I’d love to share, though some of which Tommy probably wouldn’t be best pleased if I did – not that my delivery could ever rival his. Tommy is an excellent storyteller and an even more remarkable man. Regarded as a true community hero, Tommy has dedicated a large proportion of his life to helping others. In 2014, Tommy was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours and awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to older people and to the community of Manchester.

When in conversation with one of Tommy’s priests at a parishioner’s coffee meeting he told me that the “folks round here call Tommy fish and chips,” with me having produced a look of confusion he explained, “That’s because he’s always in them newspapers for all of the fantastic works he’s done for our community.”

Sat inside Tommy’s small front room I find myself being transported through a memoir of recollections, experiences, happiness, and despair. Having a close bond with somebody much older than yourself helps you to regain your sense of perspective. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always taken pleasure in spending time with my grandparents, their friends, and Tommy. When placed next to a person who has seen it all, your problems no longer feel that significant.

Young people have a habit of foregrounding their own issues before taking a moment to acknowledge others’. We tend to lose touch with reality, blinded by our own insecurities, stresses, and fears. I guess when you haven’t experienced that much of life it’s hard to see beyond any ongoing anxieties. For that reason, I recommend joining a programme like ‘Love Your Neighbour’.

Getting to know an older neighbour in your community doesn’t just offer them the opportunity to reconnect with someone younger than themselves but it can provide you with a new outlook on life, the fulfilment of helping a person through struggle and gain a genuine, long-lasting friendship. Closing the distance between older and younger generations by instilling the idea that these relationships can be mutually beneficial is exactly what the amazing team at Manchester Cares is striving to achieve.

Loneliness is something that many of us experience at some stage in our lives. Despite how sociable university is said to be, that feeling of isolation is perhaps more common than one would presume. For most people however those feelings are short-lived, but for others like Tommy, loneliness is persistent. Social isolation among adults aged 65 and above is experienced by one in four, according to CDC. In England, AgeUK found that around 2 million people above the age of 75 live alone and more than a million older people say that they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.

There are many ways in which you can contribute toward combating this issue. Joining buddying schemes like that of Manchester Cares is one way. Age UK’s Trafford branch is another charity seeking to undermine elderly isolation within the Greater Manchester area and more closely rooted within the student community is Assist Withington, which provides a range of support services and activities for older people, designed to help them to continue to live independent, active and fulfilling lives.

For more information, please explore the links below:

Manchester Cares: Love Your Neighbour

Age UK Trafford

Assist Withington

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