Pulling together: enabling conversations to help people thrive in later life
It's strange to know that the Standing Together project, my job and a big part of my life for the past two and a half years is coming to an end.
From the summer of 2015, myself and my two colleagues facilitated 19 peer-support groups for people aged over 55 across London. By bringing people together and lending our ears we were granted a rare and privileged insight into the lives of people who had come to live in extra care or retirement housing.
We found that too many older people are never granted the opportunity to reminisce about the person they have been and to reflect on what life means to them today. Facilitating these conversations unearthed a wealth of invaluable experience once forgotten.
The Rotherhithe Babes
One of my favourite experiences from the project was working with the Rotherhithe Babes, a group of cockney women in their 80s and 90s. They shared an incredible history and were able to speak with terrific humour and dignity about their experiences: growing up in war-torn London and watching their world transform through generations to a now gentrified Rotherhithe that is somewhat unrecognisable and disorientating.
We worked together to produce a collective memoir with stories from each of the seven women's lives and we brought the local community together with later life activists for a book launch at the Brunel Museum. It was a rare occasion to celebrate life and share in the groups personal yet entirely relatable, and poignant history.
As we reach the closing of the Standing Together Project, I am growing more and more aware of the importance of these occasions. People can come alive when given the quiet, attentive space to recall a story from their past. It’s integral to identity.
Sensitively facilitated peer support groups have the power to enable these conversations, creating opportunities for memories to be shared and connections strengthened. These are just some of the fascinating stories that people have spoken about in Standing Together groups:
- Going to sleep one night as a housewife in the 1940s and waking up the next morning to build shells in an armaments factory.
- Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
- Going from Nigerian royalty to an 18-year-old nurse living in Deptford.
- Working with the circus as a sword swallower.
- Dancing in dance halls and winning singing competitions.
- Growing up in an institution for unmarried mothers having been born with a learning disability, and going on to become a special Olympics medal winner.
The importance of listening
We have written a book, Pulling Together, which we hope will support people to continue to hold these very important conversations and to set up groups like Standing Together in their own communities. This book will complement the co-produced toolkit we are developing, which is aimed at the later life housing sector, and will be released in early summer 2018.
Pulling Together has been written for people with an interest in later-life wellbeing. At its most ambitious this book is about changing the way people talk about mental health in the sector, building confidence about having conversations around issues of loss and bereavement.
Groups may be set up by tenants, staff members or volunteers in a housing scheme, or family and friends of an older person. We've written chapters to offer insight on managing conflict between group members and ways of supporting a community when a member passes away. You'll even learn the importance of sharing a good cup of tea and a slice of cake (cake is integral to everything we do!). The book's aim is to be practical and accessible, and to support anyone with limited resources to set up a later-life peer group.
Please download a free copy of our book and if you take away just one thing from it, let it be an understanding of the importance of listening. Listen to your older relatives and friends – the people you are fortunate to know, give your attention, your time and your interest. Look to see people truly for who they are and all the people they have been and, whatever you do, bring cake.