Emma Burnell: Community connections across London generations

Emma Burnell: Community connections across London generations

Ten years ago today – Thursday 6 May, 2010 – Alex Smith met the man who would change his life and send it in a completely new direction. 

At the time, Alex was knocking on Fred’s door to ask him to vote for him in his unsuccessful bid to become a councillor in Islington. Fred was 84, and though he had never previously missed an election, mobility issues meant he had been stuck in his house for three months and didn’t feel able to get to the polling station. In all that time, he hadn’t seen anyone except the carer who came in to get him breakfast. 

Alex, being an enterprising candidate drumming up votes, noticed a wheelchair behind Fred and offered to take him to the polling station personally. On their return home, Fred said it had been wonderful to spend time with a younger person. But he also felt self-conscious, his hair being long and greasy and not having been cut in a while. 

“Fair’s fair,” thought Alex: as Fred had come out to vote for him, it was only right for him to return the favour. So the next day, Alex returned and took Fred to the barbers. It was as they chatted on this outing they realised how much they had in common and a long term friendship was born. 

It was from this unusual though, as it turns out, not so unlikely friendship that North London Cares – the first in the Cares umbrella of organisations – was born. As Alex says, “There are older people with deep roots in the community but no connections, like Fred. Then there are younger people with hundreds of connections in the social media age, but no roots in the community. We need to bring these two things together.”

Cares is a community network of young professional and older neighbours. It was founded in a context of rapid community and urban change. Gentrification, globalisation and digitalisation were changing the way we live and work so rapidly that young people were struggling to put down roots just as older people were struggling to keep up. It is this mutuality that has been the ethos of all Cares projects ever since. 

“We call everybody neighbours, because it’s all about civic mentality: what you’re learning from somebody else, how you both benefit each other, and expanding your power in the context of that rapidly changing world through your relationships with people who help you connect the past with the present and the future in a world that otherwise seems completely chaotic,” says Smith. 

What he didn’t realise when starting the organisation was how popular it was going to be. “I really thought it would be me and ten of my mates, but it captured a zeitgeist,” he says. “Loneliness is not just an issue older people are suffering with and it’s not just an individual emotion. It has big public health repercussions. We have made that argument over the years, but in a way that is very bottom-up and community-oriented.”

Following the success of North London Cares, Alex was at a meeting with a group of young people and was asked the obvious question: “Why is there no South London Cares?” Having extolled the virtue of community-led projects and not waiting for things to be done for you, Smith threw the challenge back to the questioner. The second person to ask this was the organisation’s chair, who happened to live in Brixton. He took the gig on the proviso they could replicate the original project. South London Cares was born. 

In 2016/17  Cares went into a partnership with NESTA and the National Lottery to enter a further period of expansion. Their latest is East London Cares, and they also have set-ups in Manchester and Liverpool.

Smith believes it was a confluence of events and circumstances specific to London that made the initial project a success. There was a new government and the immediate repercussions of the 2008 crash were being felt. Parts of London that had been traditionally working-class were gentrifying rapidly and this, combined with the ongoing effects of austerity, made the squeeze on Londoners ever tighter and had a devastating effect on communities. This was all happening alongside an upcoming London Olympics that made Londoners look both internally and globally and also created a huge sense of community among their volunteer Games Makers

Other cities, and indeed rural areas, have their own challenges. Smith believes the solutions to these are to be found locally. North London Cares has to do things that suit the area it serves. And while there is replicability and shared learning across the Cares family, all the projects are centred on the specific communities they serve: “You have to do things differently in different areas, through separate charities, rooted in and hiring local people.” 

As the Covid-19 crisis hit, much of the response has been delivered on a hyper-local basis, with neighbourhood-level groups often coordinated by local authorities. With so many older people having to completely self-isolate, the Cares team have had to build a rapid response to make sure they continue to support the mutual relationships that have come to mean so much to everyone involved. 

“We made a difficult decision to suspend our face-to-face programmes from 13 March,” Smith says. “But we always knew that the older people that we work with are most at risk both of the virus and of social isolation. And that social isolation was also going to increasingly be an issue affecting everybody.” 

With that in mind, they have spent time reinventing their social programmes to bring them online. They have Desert Island Disc nights, where people share their favourite records. This led to two friends, Laura and Lil, singing Doris Day’s Secret Love down the phone to each other. As Laura says in a moving blog about their friendship: “It was the truest moment of friendship and togetherness, when the whole world and all its tragedy disappeared.”

However, Smith reckons that only about 40 per cent of the older people they work with have the technology to join in online. So they are continuing to run their Love My Neighbour programme, through phone calls and running errands, such as safely delivering shopping and having a chat through the window. Finally, they have developed their Alone Together programme, where neighbours share poems, quizzes, jokes – filthy ones in Lil’s case apparently – and recipes. These are being shared across the generations. 

This kind of support isn’t only important during the crisis. But the crisis has shown many more of us how important interconnectedness is. When the world comes out of lockdown, those of us who spent it alone, of whatever age, will be looking for connection more than ever. If you don’t know where to find it, London can be a big and sometimes lonely city. Now however, thanks to Alex and Fred, we do.

Photograph shows Alex with some friends who aren’t Fred (he’s shy). Emma Burnell is the person behind Political Human. Follow her on Twitter

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