New dog, old tricks: what I learned from 5 months with old people

Year Here is a brilliant opportunity for graduates to get an immersive experience working and training in social innovation.  The next programme is accepting applications now to start in January 2015 – and may close on 3rd Nov, a month earlier than expected. So don’t miss out on applying!

To get an idea of what it’s all about, here is an insider view from one of the current Year Here graduates.

I’m 24 and a graduate on the Year Here post-graduate leadership program in social innovation. With an ethos of getting grads tackling social problems in their own back yard, the course takes you on an in depth rollercoaster through different areas of the social sector, throwing you straight into the harsh realities of front line, supporting you to start your own social venture, and giving the opportunity to work alongside local government.

To kick off the program, and for my five month front-line placement, I was selected to work with Staywell (formerly Age Concern Kingston). Now, ageing isn’t the sexiest area when it comes to social change compared with say, homelessness, and to be honest I had never imagined that I’d be working with the elderly. I’d always had a good relationship with my grandparents, but that was the extent of it really. I realised that, growing up in London, you can quite easily go most of your life not knowing anyone in your parents generation outside your immediate family.

Year Here

What I did know was there was a lot of talk about the ageing population and how much strain this was going to put on the country, and the NHS. I knew that hardly anyone could afford care anymore, and that no one really knew what to do about it. Ageing was just another huge problem that no one seemed to have the beginning of a satisfactory solution to. The truth was, I had rarely spent time, like really spent time, with anyone over the age of 65 and it all seemed remarkably distant from me.

What I quickly found out was that the centre at which I was to spend the following months wasn’t at all what comes to mind when you think of a day centre for the elderly. It was a lively social hub, running all sorts of activities from line-dancing and Tai Chi to gardening and French conversation. The members were cheerful and friendly, and always open to talk. After the initial weeks of people constantly forgetting my name and asking me if I was ‘from the college’, and the frustration of having no satisfactory answer when asked who I was and what I was doing there, I began to really enjoy it. 

What I found were people with incredible life stories. From Tom, who’d spent the majority of his life as a London cabbie and always had an anecdote on the tip of his tongue. To Mary who moved to England from Austria in the 1920s after having been persecuted as a Jew. And Janette who still danced ballet at the age of 84 and came in very cross one day after having been told by her doctor that she was ‘going to have to stop doing all the jumps and lifts.’

They taught me all kinds of things, about life, knitting, the past, relationships. I learned that death is scary, but also something that we are able to come to terms with. I learned that older people, contrary to popular belief, are more than capable of learning new skills. Whether it was the Italian classes I ran, or the art exhibition they helped me plan and organise, they always surpassed my expectations with their brilliance and their enthusiasm. They made me laugh constantly, and I left with some long-lasting friendships.

I also learned that you can’t really realise how important it is for a person to have a sense of purpose until you’ve seen someone who’s lost it, and how destructive that can be. Or the effect that not speaking a word to anyone from the minute you go home on a Friday afternoon, to when you come back in on a Monday morning can have on a person’s well-being.

What I realised, above all, is that the way we, as a society, view the elderly is extremely distorted. It’s not natural for humans to live too separately, it’s not natural for older generations to be so often isolated and alone, put away in homes. There is a lot of emphasis on care, and not much talk about using older people as a resource. And they really are a resource, with a wealth of knowledge and experience as well as time on their hands to do great things.

Year Here gave the unique opportunity to see things in a way not many young people, in our society, have the chance to. The issues I had been vaguely aware of previously, suddenly had a face. This doesn’t make it simpler, and there are still no easy answers, in fact it makes it much more complicated. But it also makes your life richer. It revealed to me that the way we’re living doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it also made me feel able to do something about it.

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