Lorna Scobie (left) and Sue Pearl: ‘Amazing’ collaborators

Stands Back In Amazement

1st November 2013

We read a lot about the burden old people place on our society. We hear a lot – from friends, from colleagues, even from our own family – about the alternately funny and frustrating things that older relatives can do. It’s easiest not to think about it: not to act, and above all not to remember the inevitable fact that, one day, we too will be ancient. Yet when Clare Finney undertook a volunteering placement with a charity that aims to give isolated, elderly people a support network in the form of a telephone and visiting buddy she realised that there was far more to be gained from helping the aged than altruistic satisfaction

Practical advice, a sense of perspective, new skills, old stories – these are just a few of the invaluable benefits I’ve reaped from spending time with the lady I’ve ‘befriended’, as well as from my grandmother, whose handwritten, sugar-and-marg encrusted cookery book of family recipes has provided me with a welcome antidote to the British Bake Off glitz. Nor am I alone in this discovery: groups like The Amazings, which run classes in crafts and skills given by our elders, and Contact the Elderly, which arranges monthly tea parties, are a very live and loving testimony to the fact that intergenerational contact cannot fail to have an enriching effect in our world.

“We actually started out as a group of young people looking to help the ageing population,” explains Cheryl Adamson, Head of Amazement at The Amazings. “Yet we quickly realised they didn’t need patronising – that they were this amazing resource that was in danger of not being passed on.” Rather than thinking of the elderly as a burden, the initially four-strong team decided to see them as assets. What lessons could they teach us? How could they ensure younger generations would hear them? The result – a series of online classes in which an elder teaches a particular craft to a younger creative person (a collaborator) for the benefit of them and those watching– seems revolutionary. Yet the reality is that, up until relatively recently, that is how humanity always worked.

Sewing. Loom knitting. Embroidery. Felting. For generations these crafts were an “unspoken language for communities” explains Sue, an Amazing whose class ‘Needle Felt a Furry Friend’ has proved hugely popular since it was put up online. An ancient, sustainable tradition that dates back even before the days of knitting, the making of wet felt has been passed down for centuries from mother to daughter, to be used in interiors and clothing, yet when Sue Pearl took it up 17 years ago it was a rapidly dying art. It’s coming back again, thanks in part to Cath Kidston, in part perhaps to Kirstie Allsopp and her Handmade series – but both Sue and her collaborator Lorna Scobie agree that something has been lost in the new craft wave.

“It’s one thing to learn craft at college, or from cool new clubs,” says Lorna, “but you won’t pick up the old techniques, and you won’t get a sense of the heritage you’re part of either.” While she has always had a good relationship with her grandmother, Lorna had never really considered her as having skills she could benefit from. Her lesson with Sue changed this perspective hugely. “It has taken my own work” – Lorna is an illustrator – “to a new level – literally, because I had never considered 3D before, and also because she has a lifetime’s worth of experience in art so has been through all the problems I have.” They’ve stayed in contact, and are even considering a future project together. “I’ve always wanted to do something animated, and Lorna’s friend is an animator,” Sue explains, “so we’re thinking about doing that. What works about the Amazings is that you both bring something to it. You both bring ideas.”

This is, of course, an extreme example. There are many lessons to be learnt from our elders, and not all of them are as tangible as felt shoes. For Lorna, as for myself and others who spend time with their elders, another important discovery concerned the general assumptions we make about the old. Far from being a technophile, Sue proved to be as email and text savvy as Lorna herself : indeed, one of her class projects at The Amazings is making a gadget case. “It was inspiring to see how she had thrown herself into Twitter and the iPad. She’s forward-thinking, as the fact she can apply that to felt-making shows,” Lorna says. At Independent Age, a charity that offers advice and support and volunteering services, meanwhile, a round robin anecdote from Chief Executive Janet Morrison prompted a flurry of replies.

“I’d had a family party, and my mum had got on a trampoline with the kids,” she recalls. “She’s over 80. I sent an news update round our supporters telling them, and I got a sack of letters recalling older relatives who had done similar things.” One still rode a motorbike; another parachuted. “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since joining, it is to think of people – all people – in terms of what they can do, not what they can’t do,” Jackie says. “When I first came to Independent Age, there was still very much an attitude of ‘we are doing good to older people’. Now, I hope that ethos is changing – to that of seeing ourselves enabling people by combating the effects of age.”

This is not always easy. Though the adaptability of older people is amply demonstrated by the Amazings – “only the other day they were advising me on marketing techniques and business cards,” Cheryl confesses – not every 70-plus-year-old is capable of teaching a craft lesson over a webcam and tweeting about it. Increasingly, the people approaching Independent Age and Contact the Elderly are those whose age is now posing serious difficulties, either mentally or physically. “At the moment, we are really trying to gear up our public information and befriending services” says Jackie, “because we are seeing a much higher level of need.” By 2025, the combined costs of healthcare, social care and pensions will have tripled. If the attitude of younger generations towards the elderly doesn’t welcome everyone, healthy or otherwise, society is in for a very rough ride.

“I’m 87, I’ve dislocated my shoulder, and my knees aren’t good. Another winter, another fall and I’m not sure how well I will be.” Alice, a Contact the Elderly member living near Watford, has been having tea parties with the group for almost 20 years. Her driver, Pat, has long since become a good friend. “She’s like my surrogate mother,” Pat rejoins. “My mother died in ’98, and Alice is about the same age as she would be now.” Having signed up to Contact because she lived by herself and “knew how long the days seemed”, Pat soon found herself enjoying the company of Alice just as much as Alice herself enjoyed Pat’s. “We have our fall-outs” – “when she tells me what to do!” Alice interrupts – “but she and I have a real relationship, and it’s so important to me. It amazes me that families don’t trouble to visit or look after their parents, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Sadly, family neglect of the elderly is something Contact sees a great deal of, as indeed do all Age charities. “I railed against being called an elder at first, because it makes me sound like an old wise women with blankets and a pipe – but if it shows young people we can be relevant, I’m for it,” Sue Pearl bluntly explains. Seeing her mother end her days in a care home, with professors, doctors and engineers, all “reduced to the same rotting pile” made her determined to make people think otherwise. “Use us or lose us,” is her maxim and you’ll find it echoed among everyone whose privileged enough to know someone elderly, even if their amazingness is of a very different nature to that of Sue and her estimable colleagues.
Many Happy Returns cards are a case in point. Established by Sarah Reed in a bid to reconnect with her elderly mother, the set of 26 cards from various decades, with photographs of everyday items and subjects are designed as a trigger for those suffering from memory loss, enabling them to reclaim and share their memories easily. Grandchildren can get a history lesson; children find out things about their parents that they may well have been consigned to history, had they not prompted. “They brought out an extensive discussion around the nature and role of evacuees from London during the war,” recounts one customer, “and, most amusingly for her children, a description of her first date.” In a similar project using art and image to prompt recall, Janet heard a man with dementia describe his passage from the Caribbean to Essex on the Windrush in 1948.

Lessons such as these should not be discounted. Right as Jackie is to object to our placing the value of people “in their history, not their future”, we would be wrong not to mine the experiences of 70-odd years. Stories of learning how to make do, mend and keep your chin up in challenging times abound among those I speak to, and are as relevant now as ever they were. “If you just speak to those of your own age you risk just reinforcing your own mindset,” says Cheryl. “There is something enormously comforting about speaking to someone who’s been through it and has a longer perspective on life.”

Next to my befriendee’s 40-year marriage and her 20-year widowhood my recent heartbreak paled into insignificance. Stories of what Watford used to be like give local drivers for Contact the Elderly a newfound appreciation for their home. A friend who runs a book group with the elderly found her homo-erotic interpretation of a novel challenged by a man who finds the speed with which we now assume close male relationships are homosexual bewildering, given the world he grew up in.

“I thought at first he was just being homophobic. In fact, he was making a really interesting comment about how attitudes towards tactile relations between the same sex have changed.” Two years after the group approached her to organise a book group for them, she is no longer surprised by the diversity of experiences and attitudes they bring to bear.

Whether, like Lorna, you’re having your reluctance to master new skills challenged by an iPad-wielding 65-year old, or, like Cheryl, discovering that “having a passion helps you age better”, or even, like Alice’s cleaner, learning how to hang out your silk shirts properly – “by the shoulder pads I told her,” Alice tuts. “Really, you should have seen what she was doing” – the old are a well of wisdom from which all ages should drink.

Find Your Local