Photo credit: Roswitha Chesher
We are all living longer. Last year there were half a million people aged 90 and over living in the UK. Medical science given us more time but often these additional years are spent in loneliness and isolation. Forty per cent of older people attending GP surgeries, and sixty per cent of those living in residential institutions are reported to have 'poor mental health'. We hear stories of cuts to social care that limit the amount of time care workers are able to help people get out of bed in the morning but are we really answering the question 'what, for many of our eldest citizens, is there to get up for?'
Meet Me at... is a bold and imaginative new approach to day care for older people, providing a regular creative meeting place for formerly isolated and lonely older people. It's a space to socialise and work creatively alongside professional artists.
The core programme runs weekly at the Albany, taking over the café at the heart of the building and filling it with poetry, knitting, sculpture, singing and much more plus conversation and copious quantities of tea and biscuits.
Meet Me at... is one of a handful of innovative projects that are pioneering ways for arts spaces across the country become meeting points for people who are marginalised. Places where people can connect and actively contribute to the cultural life of their communities.
For many older people getting out and about can present huge challenges. Meet Me at the Albany is supported by a complex transport programme helping people travel from their homes to the project. But there are huge pressures on the limited capacity of community transport schemes and not everyone has the confidence or mobility to come to us. Thanks to an innovative partnership with Lewisham Homes, the borough's largest social housing provider, we've been able to work around some of those barriers by taking Meet Me at... into communities. Just as the Albany has become a hub for community connection and engagement for many people, the lounges of some of Lewisham Homes sheltered housing sites have now been transformed into mini points of culture.
We effected change with a gentle step by step approached supporting small groups of artists to invest time in building relationships with residents. We began by piloting the project in one unit of 16 homes. Success was small and uncertain at first but built - attendees began to appear regularly, someone brought in a photograph of their family, it encouraged others to do the same and redecorate the room with personal imagery. Gradually fun, laughter, and the sounds of living grew in the environment. Gentle risks were taken - residents attended the birthday party of someone who recently moved in - and they could all see their actions having an immediate effect on their home and each other. Over the months, a sense of community built and both isolation and stress were reduced.
It's not the weekly sessions that really changed things though, it was that residents chose to form a community outside the sessions and to make changes in their own lives.
As one participant put it: "When you sit at home doing nothing, when you are indoors alone, you feel very low. You start thinking back about the problems that you have been through and all of the problems you are in at the moment. That makes you worried and sad. But when you come here you feel happy. Talking to other people, seeing them, watching what they are doing - it's good for your health. It makes you feel so much better."
As a result of the success of the pilot, Meet Me at... began popping up at six additional sheltered accommodation sites in 2016. In addition, 2016 has seen the launch of Meet Me On The Move - for trips and adventures, and community led programme Meet Me At The Movies - an intergenerational film club.
At the heart of all of this is the ambition to creatively support people to become active and have agency within their own communities - whether that refers to their communal living room or the whole of London. This has proved life changing for a handful of people already but we believe it has radical reach. Our small project evidences how a creative approach and collaboration can positively affect the ability to age well - something we should all aspire to.
Meet Me at the Albany is a participatory arts programme for isolated older people, run by the Albany - an arts centre in Deptford, south east London - Entelechy Arts and the London Borough of Lewisham. It aims to help isolated older people to create and experience great art.