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When a shabby Victorian hall in Greenwich opened its doors to the public several years ago, no one could have predicted how important it would become to supporting social connections among the over-60s, says Daniel Bernstein.

Photo of older person in carriage in parade
The Greenwich Lantern Parade

Emergency Exit Arts (EEA) has been based in Rothbury Hall for over 30 years - a beautiful, if slightly shabby, Victorian hall in Greenwich that was originally built from the profits of the arms trade in the 1890s. We use it as our artists’ making space and it is not usually open to the public. However, when we threw open our doors for Fun Palaces, local older residents came in and loved it.

It is the younger, recently retired but very active participants who are now out recruiting more participants

It got us thinking, and in 2017 we decided to open on a weekly basis to residents aged over 60. The result is our People’s Parlour, the drive for which came from a feeling among our staff that maybe there was something we could do to help tackle social isolation locally.

We ran a five-week trial, which gave us a feel for who might attend and what kinds of activities they were interested in. Following the trial, we fundraised in close partnership with East Greenwich Residents Association and the project gained support (through Awards for All, Royal Borough of Greenwich and Arts Council England) to employ creative practitioners to run the project for a year.

Social interactions

We focused on team-building and bonding between the participants, as well as unusual creative activities. The sessions usually start with a cup of tea, followed by a pub quiz, and then the group does a variety of activities that have developed over time in close consultation with participants.

Some participants want to ‘make’ with textiles while others have tried life drawing. There have been spoken word workshops, wood carving, a radio show, lantern-making, gardening, singing and rope-making.

The project climaxed last year with a lantern procession around the neighbourhood, with the less mobile residents wrapped up warmly under blankets on rickshaws. This was followed by a performance of short pantomime they had devised and a party to which the rest of the local community was invited.

The monies from the original grant were targeted towards reducing social isolation - which proved to be a contentious term, as many residents who attended didn’t feel themselves to be socially isolated. However, by week 12 it was found through an evaluation that while some did not feel socially isolated, all members of the group significantly widened their social network locally. Participants opened up about the stresses of caring for a loved one, bereavement and living alone.

What we hadn’t thought through carefully enough was the huge spread of age and needs that an over-60s group has - from those who are accompanied by a carer to those who walk and cycle around the neighbourhood distributing flyers. It is the younger, recently retired but very active participants who are now out recruiting more participants, volunteering for our projects and going on a health and safety course. Rewardingly, the People’s Parlour has also been a catalyst for participants to engage in other volunteering opportunities.

Internal impact

To help us evaluate the impact on participants and others, we worked with John Foster from the Department of Family Care and Mental Health at the University of Greenwich. EEA has been organising workshops with the public for almost 40 years, but having older adults come into our space on a regular basis has been transformative. Our experienced team of freelance creative practitioners has been blown away.

As one put it: “I’ve been doing projects with adults for 27 years, which I’ve really enjoyed, but this is special because we have time to build relationships, and time to listen and then respond.”

But it doesn’t stop there. It has been a great motivation for us and has raised our profile with a wider range of voluntary sector organisations, councillors and departments in the council. This in turn is leading to new partnerships and fundraising opportunities.

Future plans

So, what next for the group? There is now a steering group made up of participants who help shape and direct the activities and strategic direction. We are excited to expand to two mornings per week so that more people can experience the benefits of the project. We have secured Heritage Lottery Funding to investigate the history of Rothbury Hall, through teaching the participants filming and audio recording techniques and getting them to interview residents about their memories of the space.

We are starting a pilot going out into local care homes to take People’s Parlour out and about. We are investigating developing a local buddying scheme so that housebound residents can be visited by those more able. And there are plans afoot to run social events to try and attract newer residents to mingle with us, as our ward is due to double in population over the next ten years.

On a personal level, it is one of the projects we are most proud of initiating. It’s one of those simple ideas that sends out ripples of influence across the neighbourhood and beyond, helping to make a community.

Daniel Bernstein is Executive Director of Emergency Exit Arts.
Tw @EEALondon

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Photo of Daniel Bernstein