Offiong lives alone in sheltered housing. She came to Britain from Nigeria with her husband in 1956, trained as a radiotherapist and raised a family. Now living with the effects of glaucoma, her mobility is poor and she struggles to get around. Her flat is very comfortable and manageable but going out is a daunting experience. Bustling Kilburn High Road presents many obstacles: uneven pavements, short-timed road crossings, lack of public seating and footpaths obstructed by unnecessary street furniture, shop wares and the heavy pound of the crowd. All too much for Offiong who we filmed shopping, to tell her story about poor accessibility in the urban space (see www.kove.org.uk). The experience was illuminating and shows how street design can lead to older people with impairments being cut off from social contact and becoming isolated and lonely.
As one of Camden’s bid ambassadors for our application to the Lottery’s Ageing Better programme, myself and older volunteers including from our group, KOVE (Kilburn Older Voices Exchange) brought their interest and skills to visiting vulnerable people who are marooned in their homes, have chronic health problems and perhaps have lost confidence in meeting people and going out. Some seem to be adrift in their retirement: loss of role, little family contact, experiencing bereavement, a sense of withdrawal, wariness, and fear for their personal safety. There are over 20 volunteer ambassadors bid and we meet up to share our experiences and report back about what people feel they need. This has included: One-to-one contact and support and an opportunity to contribute their skills. We have also held an asset based community development workshop to discover ‘Kilburn’s hidden treasures.’ Attended by over 40 people and facilitated by Vintage Communities– we spent the session creatively, mapping out all the different community assets that we have on our doorstep, including a newly established Fair Credit campaign, local fish and chip shop and cafes. We also discovered what skills people have and which they are willing to share, and much, much more!
The preparation for the Ageing Better bid has been a stimulating experience. In the 70s, when I started out as a social worker in South London, isolation and loneliness did not appear such an acute issue. Active social and politicised tenant groups, community links, informal neighbourhood support – local family ties were still hanging on, but then the lost opportunity of mainstream community social work practice in the 80s was overridden and fractured by the Griffith’s report and the care management model which put paid to the development of collective community cohesion.
Now as an older person myself, running KOVE is energising: campaigning with older people – taking up issues, like Offiong’s experience, with authorities who are responsible for safety for the urban environment. Also my own recent personal experience in getting around London with a ‘double vision’ eye condition has been scary but quite revealing as pavement kerbs turn into cliff edges, traffic signals become blurred and stumbling on and off buses and trains.
We have a lot to learn from older peoples experiences of isolation and loneliness in the urban environment. I hope that the Lottery’s Ageing Better initiative will help bring a lot of good ideas together for us all to share.
Footnote: Kilburn High Road is soon to be revamped and improved by Camden and Brent Councils.
The author, Mel Wright is co-ordinator of KOVE (Kilburn Older Voices Exchange) and Chair of Camden’s Ageing Better Partnership. He previously worked as social worker in Lewisham and was a planning manager for Tower Hamlets before becoming a freelance trainer and a community development worker.