It is an unlikely friendship. He's pushing 90, blind and not as quick on his feet as he used to be. She's not yet four, and until recently rarely said a word. Now she has found her voice and she has plenty to say for herself. Within moments she is holding the elderly gent's hand and he is laughing out loud. If he's not careful she'll soon be helping herself to the cake from his plate.
When fostering meets Contact the Elderly, anything can happen, and often does. Once a month we join a group of friends in hosting Sunday afternoon tea for older people who are in need of companionship. Half-a-dozen people in their 80s and 90s, accompanied by volunteer drivers/chaperones, gather for a cup of tea or three, sandwiches and cake, plenty of cake. More importantly, for some it is a rare opportunity to leave their homes, enjoy some company and talk about whatever is on their minds. Occasionally, these get-togethers flag up issues of concern regarding health or care. But mostly it is about having fun.
For us as foster carers, the logistics can be complicated. We usually care for siblings and currently share our home with three young and very lively, inquisitive children. So we begin preparations for Sunday afternoon with some trepidation.
Need we have worried? Probably not, as it turns out. The children are excited by what sounds very much like a party, and in the hours before our guests arrive they help to prepare a spread fit for royalty, baking cakes and making sandwiches, singing along to tunes on the radio. What they lack in experience they easily make up for in enthusiasm and some of what they prepare does eventually find its way on to the dining room table.
Amid the frenzied, and messy, kitchen activity, their little minds go into overdrive, and they ask surprisingly perceptive questions about our afternoon guests, about why they might be lonely and why we are having a party for people who we do not actually know that well. And, in their own way, they reflect on the parallels with their own situation. In this world, as they have discovered, it is not only children who need a little help, every now and then.
Our afternoon tea passes, as it always does, in a blur: we guzzle navigable amounts of tea and coffee, and the sandwiches and cake just keep on coming. What is not eaten at the table is shared out among guests to take home for the next day. Conversation is lively, and there is plenty of laughter. Outside, the rain teems down on what is a truly miserable winter's day. Indoors, it really is warm and cosy, and when the time comes our guests linger at the door, reluctant to say goodbye.
And the children? We are overwhelmed by their kindness. They are polite and engaging, helpful, gentle. They have an instinctive understanding of the vulnerability of our guests and of their importance to us. They hold open doors as we help people from room to room, pass dishes around, and run to fetch things when we need them. They want to be involved. And they eat a lot of cake. A lot.
As foster carers, we spend much of our lives surrounded by children: our own, our nieces and nephews and now a grandchild, as well as the looked-after children who are entrusted into our care. We also try to find time for ageing parents, relatives and friends. It makes for a rumbustious, slightly chaotic household, with barely time to pause for breath. But it is the life we have made for ourselves, and we would not have it any other way.
My one regret is that my mother is not around to share these moments. She was never happier than when she was in the company of little ones. An infant school teacher before she married, she had five children of her own. My sister, the only girl of the family, was just nine months old when my mother passed away, aged just 35.
Had she lived, Mum would now be as old as the people tucking into tea around our dining room table. I like to think that, should she have needed it, somebody would have asked her round for a cuppa once in a while. And I know that she would have appreciated the soft, tender touch of a four-year-old as she made her way uncertainly on a wintry afternoon.