In the 1980s as a young theatre maker I apprenticed myself to a group of women in their eighties and nineties living in the old docklands communities of Bermondsey south London. Born in the late nineteenth century they had survived everything that the twentieth had thrown at them: two world wars, the unimaginable poverty of the 1930s and finally the gentrification of their old familiar neighbourhoods. They sang, told stories and danced through their later years . We formed a theatre company and went on tour. One night, on stage at the Centre for Policy on Ageing after a triumphant performance of their latest show, a tragic comedy about the pain of moving into residential care, Nell Coombes, their oldest member, had a sandwich and a cup of tea with her friends and died. At that moment of community and connection, of love and recognition, the arc of her life finally came to rest.
Forty years later, in the neighbouring community of Deptford, the creative legacy of these pioneering older women continues to thrive in the Meet Me programme jointly run by participatory arts company Entelechy Arts and the Albany arts centre. For fifty weeks a year over forty formerly isolated older people met in the full public view in the huge café space at the centre of the arts space. Pre-Covid the work had grown into an interconnected network of over 200 older people meeting in various places and spaces to spend time creatively together.
At the beginning Meet Me started with a room full of people carrying different descriptions – the recently bereaved, people living with dementia, people caring for people living with dementia, people living with depression, people living with life limiting conditions. People experiencing similar situations, many living through the experience of grief and loss.
‘When you get talking to people’, said founder member Pauline Hale, ‘you find that everyone has the same story to tell. There may be a few things that are different but it’s mainly a story about being lonely and getting lost and not being able to find your way back out’.
Week after week the project evolved with a huge mix of ingredients: clay, wire, paint, trumpets, wool, poets, tea, aerialists, song and critically the condition of not quite knowing what might happen next. Older participants, artists and local volunteers shared the vulnerability and uncertainty of ‘making it up as they went along.’ They shared the vulnerability of collectively navigating moments of the often uncertain and unpredictable journey into older, old age.
Within three months the café had transformed into a space full of poets, singers, sculptors, weavers and performers. A programme of arts and creative activities had been established in community with people living through the last decades of their lives. A diverse cohort of older south London elders, deftly reframing the question “What will become of me?” from a mantra of despair into one of wonder and possibility.
‘Feelings’, the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes, ‘ought to be a part of a tissue. A fabric. An emotion shouldn’t be an isolated thing that hits you like a sucker punch. There should be other satisfactions in life to maintain perspective, proportion. Things to look forward to for example.’ Meet Me has grown into a rich fabric, a forensic stitching together of a palpable sense of community.
“Anything could happen to us but we take the risk”, says Entelechy Arts participant Gwen Sewell. “There’s a lot of trust. We belong to this body of trust, like sisters to each other. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk.”
This gentle two step between trust and risk that so many older project members learn to undertake enables participants to be visibly comfortable and open in sharing their vulnerabilities.
‘For me it’s so special because you have all made it so special.’ said one of the project members. ‘You give as much as you get. It’s two way. When you are here you are yourself. People here don’t expect anything. People here just take us as who we are. Whatever problems we’ve got. You haven’t got to be someone else. People who live around you, your family and everyone, they don’t want to hear the bad bits, they just want you to talk about the nice bits. But here you can be yourself.’
‘A little while ago I was told that I’ve got cancer again’, said Pauline Hale. ‘If I hadn’t come here I wouldn’t be the person I am now. I hate to think about what I would have been like at home: isolated and having to cope with that as well. Coming here, it’s made me that strong, I’m coping ok. It’s made me a stronger person.’
“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people” reflects George Vaillant, summing up the ongoing findings of the Harvard Grant Study into health and happiness that has now been running for over seventy-five years. With the arrival of Covid-19 and lockdown it has been the strength of the fabric of relationships that has enabled the programme to continue to flourish; the constant ongoing processes of making and remaking community.
In an informed ‘making it up as we go along’ way we redesigned new structures for both maintaining creative connection with existing participants and expanding our reach to meet increased needs within our neighbourhoods. One of the first actions after lockdown was to create a new role of Care and Regeneration Manager supporting staff teams and volunteers to develop new skills, techniques and competencies to care for themselves whilst continuing to work in challenging and often unpredictable circumstances.
A new multi-strand programme has emerged. Using telephone conferencing techniques a creative cluster programme is now in place that brings together older participants, artists and local volunteers. In small groups of up to eight people are knitting and chatting down the line to each other, singing, gossiping about movies, devising a soap opera and much, much more.
Working with our partners the Albany, participants have co-produced a weekly radio show on south London’s Resonance FM: ‘Meet Me on the Radio’. The ‘Gnomes at Home’ project has distributed 250 garden gnomes needing paint and care together with succulent plants. Digital postcards have re-established connections with staff and residents working in care homes. Mini safe distanced impromptu concerts have taken place outside people’s homes maintaining the ritual of celebrating people’s significant birthdays.
Sadly, several participants have died of the virus and collectively everyone in the programme has had to learn the processes of remote grieving. New rituals, new moments of shared silence or moments of remembering. Loss and sadness, the absence and continuing remembered presences of new shared friends and acquaintances have always threaded themselves into the programme.
Ultimately we cannot have control of our endings writes Atul Gwande in Being Mortal. But he talks about the possibility of creating ‘room to act, to shape our stories, within narrower and narrower confines.’ We cannot stage manage the perfect exit as Nell Combes did, performing on stage with her friends in the Centre for Policy on Ageing but perhaps we can create the circumstances to gently nudge possibilities.
Gwande reflects that the ‘chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.’ Working with imagination, possibility and hope there is a huge potential for the arts and cultural organisations in the company of cross-sector partners to help affect change.
A few years ago I was sitting in the foyer of the Midland Hotel in Bradford with Nelly Andoh. She was in her eighties and in the last months of her life. In poor health, she had been insistent that she travel north with her friends from Entelechy Arts who were working on a creative exchange with elders from the Ukrainian Centre In Bradford. In between sips of her lemonade she summed up her motivation and I think the essence of the work that I have been describing:
‘I thought I’d finished with life but this is waking me up again. It makes you feel you’re not dead. You’re not worthless. You can do something and still be a part the world.’