In July 2015, the Albany, an arts centre in Deptford, teamed up with Lewisham Homes on a unique partnership intended to reduce social isolation and encourage community cohesion in south east London through arts activities.
Lewisham is one of the 25 local authority areas in England where poverty and deprivation are at their greatest. Lewisham Homes manage 18,000 council homes in the borough. The partnership with the Albany was formed as part of a major investment programme to improve homes and local communities.
Both organisations share a passion for the area that far exceeds our remits; to provide housing or put on shows. Contributing to and creating better communities – better places for people to live and work – is at the heart of our ambitions.
The partnership’s activities span five projects: access to green space and gardening activities for all; cheap or free access to shows and events; activities to reduce isolation in vulnerable and lonely older people; training and development for 16 to 25 year olds; and participation in dance and other art forms for eight to 18 year olds.
Why does this matter? Unsurprisingly, those on the tightest budgets and the most vulnerable often have least access to opportunities in Lewisham, as elsewhere. Isolated older people are a key constituent of those with the least support or opportunities. Last year there were half a million people aged 90 and over living in the UK. People are living longer – but 40 per cent of older people attending GP surgeries, and 60 per cent of those living in residential institutions are reported to have a mental health problem.
All sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds can become increasingly cut off from the community, or lonely as they age and develop mental health problems: bereavement, long illnesses and the loss of independence are just a few common causes.
In short, we must find ways to support older people to live well, not just for longer. If we don’t, we’ll find that too many of our generation and the next will also face living out our final years in loneliness.
So Meet Me at Lewisham Homes is one project within the partnership that we think has the potential to grow exponentially – well beyond our organisations, or even our city. Run by the Albany, Entelechy Arts and the London Borough of Lewisham, it aims to help vulnerable older people to create and experience art. It provides a regular creative meeting place for formerly isolated and lonely older people and a space to socialise and work creatively alongside professional artists.
The project began with weekly sessions at the Albany three years ago and has grown to encompass dance projects, a film club and cultural trips all over the capital. It aims to reframe the idea of older people as a problem, and asks instead what they can contribute to their local communities. Participants are now a driving force of the project, taking forward their own ideas and setting up fundraising drives. Just this week, the project won the first Hearts for the Arts Award from the National Campaign for the Arts for its success in encouraging community cohesion.
The Albany-Lewisham Homes partnership has meant the club can pop-up in Lewisham Homes residential sites throughout the borough. That’s important, because just going out can present huge challenges for older people who may have mental and physical health conditions. Meet Me at Lewisham Homes breaks down that barrier by taking place in the heart of some of the most marginalised communities. The lounges of some of Lewisham Homes sheltered housing sites have been transformed into social and cultural hubs in their own right as a result.
We piloted the project in one residential site in 2016. It started quietly and grew: attendees began to appear regularly, a trailblazer brought family photos into the previously undecorated communal lounge, and others began to populate it with personal belongings and imagery. Laughter, and the sounds of living, grew in the environment. 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 the way 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 Lewisham Homes began popping up at six additional sheltered accommodation sites in late 2016 and will grow further this year.
The support to become active and regain agency within their own communities 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 cross sector collaboration can positively affect the ability to age well – something we should all aspire to.
Gavin Barlow is chief executive of the Albany.