By Hanna Wilcock, Learning Facilitator, Time to Shine
I had the pleasure of attending a group that is being run for older ladies in Leeds. The group is a mix of gentle exercise, yoga, good food and company and caters to women over fifty from Chapeltown and the surrounding area. This group has been set up and is run completely by older volunteers. They currently have no budget and so charge attendees £1 per week in order to help them pay the rent. They are reliant on the good will of others and both the personal trainer and the yoga teacher provide their services for free. Currently 30 plus ladies attend the weekly event; with most being picked up by the volunteers as they have no transport.
I had been invited by Sharon Rall a lady I worked with on the ‘Loneliness and Me’ video as we had been talking about the issues of isolation and loneliness in the Sikh and Asian communities. A large percentage of this group of ladies come from these communities and I wanted to sit down and chat with them about isolation and how it affects them. I was greeted warmly when I arrived and immediately informed that I would be taking part in the exercise and yoga, given a mat and told to take my shoes off. ‘No problems,’ I thought naively. ‘Gentle exercise for older ladies will be easy!’
Well, it wasn’t. In fact I’m still sore now. I was absolutely useless at the yoga: I couldn’t work out the breathing, my trousers were too tight to cross my legs and I kept holding my fingers wrong. The lady next to me kept smacking my leg and giggling both at how rubbish I was and how much it was quite obviously hurting me. Lesson learnt. Never underestimate older ladies. They may have looked older and frailer than me but these ladies killed it at yoga.
After the exercise (Which was an hour. I could barely talk.) we sat down to some home cooked food made by Sharon and some delicious desserts that had been brought because somebody had just become a grandma. I started chatting to some of the ladies about their situations and how they feel isolation and loneliness affects their community. The majority of ladies lived with their families; either their sons or daughters. Most of the ladies had a similar story; that they were lucky to live with their families as it means they have a warm house and are safe but they all struggle with loneliness.
One lady told me that her son leaves for work at seven and then after work he goes to the gym so he doesn’t get home until past nine. She knows he is very busy and his job is important but this means that on a normal day she is by herself for 14 hours with no-one to talk to. She was telling me that being by herself like this makes her feel terrible; like she can’t go on. She does not feel comfortable talking to her son about this as she does not want him to feel guilty or that she is a burden. A lot of ladies at the group felt the same; they were by themselves for long periods with no one coming to see them and no one to speak to. They mostly do not drive, and do not feel confident going out and getting the bus as English is not their first language. In a way they are trapped in the house.
There is not much available for ladies like this who have no transport. The Sikh temple has a drop in centre where food and company is plentiful but you have to be able to get there. This group exists only because the volunteers go and pick up all the ladies and bring them. They get no funding for transport and the access bus is not regular enough to rely on. These ladies, on paper are not isolated; they live with family, and are lucky in that their family will help pay the bills and keep an eye on them. Their families think that they are doing their best by them. What the ladies want though is a social life. They want and need to be able to get out and talk to people. Some of the ladies I spoke to are completely reliant on family for: shopping, appointments and getting out and about. When their families go to work or go away they are left feeling alone.
When we talked about what they ladies would like to see change they all said transport should be better. There is no real accessible transport in the area and it is not really sustainable for volunteers to be doing all the pickups. They would love access to a mini bus so they could go out for the day or go to the shops. They all talked about funding too; this group runs on a shoestring and could be forced to stop at any time due to lack of money. They really feel groups like this are a lifeline and keep a lot of them going. They love the exercise but feel they cannot rely on people giving their time for free forever. Most importantly they feel as if their families should be aware that they really struggle being by themselves in the day. They need to be aware that they need a social life as well as a safe place to live; but they don’t know how to tell them without offending them.
Going to this group was really positive; it is a real community group led by volunteers because they saw a need for it. It has raised a lot of new questions and issues for me around loneliness though. How can we reach people who struggle with crippling loneliness but who don’t want to admit it because by doing so they risk upsetting or shaming their family? How do we reach people who have no transport and so are effectively housebound? How do we encourage more community groups set up by people of the community to deal with their needs?