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How one London charity is tackling loneliness and isolation

Mick, Project Manager from Furzedown
Mick, Project Manager from Furzedown

“We just enjoy being with each other”

Loneliness and isolation are a blight on the lives of so many older people. The Furzedown Project is helping them to help themselves, and each other.

“You couldn’t find a better place than this,” says Betty. Her friend, Eileen, agrees. “It keeps me young,” she says. Eileen is 84. Betty is 87. They’re sitting in a circle with 22 other Londoners their age, in a room decked with Christmas tinsel and fairy lights, singing popular songs from films and music hall, with a bit of Bob Dylan too.

Betty is chatting away and organising people, making sure everyone has a printout of the words. But we have to settle down now because Alan, the visiting music teacher, is playing the opening bars of the next song on his Yamaha electronic piano.

It’s “Always”, a sentimental tune that Irving Berlin wrote for his wife in 1925. Everyone joins in the verse, with varying degrees of gusto. But the volume cranks up several notches as we reach the chorus: “Days may not be fair, always. That’s when I’ll be there, always.”

The lyrics neatly encapsulate what the Furzedown Project is all about: people sticking together, supporting each other; sharing the good times and the bad.

A local doctor, Norman Levinson, created the organisation in 1975 to prevent and combat social isolation and loneliness among elderly people in Furzedown, a council ward in Tooting, south London.

Appalled by the deaths of two older patients during a winter flu epidemic, Levinson started to organise regular social activities for his more isolated patients in a nearby church. It gave people a reason to leave the house, a way to be useful and to meet others their age.

Today the project has a permanent home in a parade of shops on Moyser Road, a short bus ride from Tooting Bec tube station. With wide doors and double aspect windows, light shines into its rooms, and a warm welcome spills out onto the pavement, even on the coldest of winter afternoons.

Furzedown offers the kind of friendly, purposeful environment that’s missing from the lives of so many older people. Around a third of those in England aged over 65 say they feel lonely some or all of the time, according to the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. That rises sharply for those over 80: around half of people that age feel a lack of companionship.

Whether you call it social isolation or loneliness, “We believe that people being stuck at home all day long on their own is potentially the root of all evil,” explains current Furzedown project manager Mick Morrell over tea and homemade coconut biscuits. It can lead to everything from declining physical and cognitive abilities to self-neglect and depression.

This isn’t simply a place where older people come to see friends or access ‘services’. A founding principle of Furzedown is that activities are organised and lead by the people who take part – from singing and book groups to yoga and swimming.

And if taking a lead role is too much, people can contribute in a host of other ways – from making tea and cooking biscuits to welcoming new arrivals and visiting people who are too infirm to leave their homes. (Most of the people who come to Furzedown make the trip by themselves, but there’s a daily minibus for those who are less mobile and a home-visiting service for the housebound.)

“The people we work with are our significant resource,” says Mick. “It’s through working with them, maximising their strengths, creativity and generosity, that we can develop, design and evolve the services we offer and go in new directions.”

Mick is talking in his busy office now, with Clive in the far corner organising home visits. The singing carries on next door. In another room, 15 people sit around one large table, knitting and talking. When people engage in activities, they naturally form friendship circles and wider networks that support them when they need it, explains Mick.

A newly bereaved man on the minibus ride to swimming club might mention the difficulty of sorting out his wife’s clothes – advice can be given and grief shared by friends who’ve been through the same pain. A woman playing bridge can discuss her worries about a looming hip replacement with others who’ve already had the operation.

“It’s about belonging and supporting others, and receiving their support, as part of a community,” says Mick.

Underpinning that ethos, Furzedown is run as a membership organisation. “We do not regard the people who come here as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’,” says Mick. “They are members of an organisation where they also have an opportunity to contribute. It’s about exchange – giving and receiving, it’s not about being a service user who pays and is a customer.”

There’s an annual fee of £20 and activity fees of £1 per session, with an extra charge for those who need a lift on the minibus – £1 return.

It’s surely worth £1 just to hear the rousing solo performance from 81-year-old Bob that ends the afternoon’s singing group. He once performed at the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, and “always brings the house down,” says Alan, as he packs away his piano.

Bob likes to visit Furzedown with his partner, Rita. “When I first came here I thought, this is just what I want. It’s lovely,” he says.

As the singers leave, there’s time for a final chat – and more tea – with a group of women who’ve been coming to Furzedown for years.

Liz works on reception and helps with the home visiting service. “I retired five years ago and I was really anxious about what I’d do,” she says. “I wanted something to fill my time, and I found myself getting more and more involved.” Volunteering at Furzedown, “Makes you feel like you are doing something useful,” she explains. “And enjoying yourself at the same time.”

Ilaben was recovering from a time in hospital when she first visited five years ago. “I was passing by on the street, and somebody said ‘come in’,” she says. “It’s home, isn’t it?” she says to her friends. “You’re most welcome. You never feel that you are stepping in somewhere that you don’t want to be. We just enjoy being with each other”.

“If I’m not feeling ok or I don’t want to get out of bed and I think ‘what should I do?’ I visit the project. I know I’ll feel happy because I’ll meet someone and it will feel like I’ve known them for ages and ages.”

Ilaben turns to her friends now. “You know that feeling?” she asks them. And they nod together: yes, they all know that feeling.

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