“Excuse me! How old are you?” This simple question sparks fierce debate and involves 5 or 6 of the Venton Wellbeing Centre’s clients. I invite guesses and I’m pretty fucking delighted with the answers that range from 16 to 23. I’ll take that all day long! It’s a Friday and I’m volunteering for Age UK. I haven’t met this group of 25 clients before and I’m assuming they are being kind (or possibly in need of new glasses). “I’m 33” I announce. The gasps and comments of disbelief make me smile. Then the roles reverse and we place bets on the various ages of the people in the room. I’m genuinely surprised at the responses, everyone looks so young for their age.
My company offer community days each year where we can volunteer and be paid at the same time. This is my second visit to the centre and I’m in no doubt that it is much harder work than my paid job. The day consists of making lots of tea and coffee, acting as compere for two games of flower bingo (most I’ve never heard of or can actually pronounce), setting up and serving lunch, offering an arm to lean on as clients move round the centre and talking to people. Not hard work on paper but being on my feet all day is new.
The staff at the centre, who do this every day, are absolutely brilliant and I have soooo much admiration for them. They are literally non-stop and provide a well organised, welcoming and inclusive service. The clients are able to visit the onsite hair dresser, take a bath, play games, enjoy entertainment and have a 2 course hot lunch. The staff know the clients well and have real affection for them. “Watch out for these three.” one of the staff members tells me. “They’re trouble!” she says loud enough for the three ladies to hear. They giggle and play up to their naughty label. The exchanges between the staff and clients and between the clients themselves are easy and friendly. It feels like a family.
After lunch most of the clients watch a singer perform in the other room. A few people stay behind to continue working on a jig saw or to read the newspaper. I sit next to a Jamaican couple affectionately referred to as Helen and Mr Helen. They are smartly dressed. Mr Helen wears a shirt, slacks and braces. I discover they have been married 20 years. “What’s the secret?” I ask. They look at me like I’ve asked them the hardest question in the world (I guess I have). “Work together” Helen answers. Mutually satisfied by the answer we talk about our families, my job, Helen’s health. They are warm and engaging. I sit with another lady who is busily crocheting. “I’m making blankets for the old people” she explains with a chuckle. I ask her what she enjoys about coming to the centre and she explains she likes the company and listening to people. We agree on a love of people watching and I let her continue in peace.
The day goes fast and it’s soon time for the buses to collect the clients and take them home. I walk back to my flat and wonder what the older people would have done today if they hadn’t attended the centre. Watch TV? Maybe a neighbour would visit? They say loneliness is one of the biggest problems facing older people. I’ve mentioned before I know the feeling well and I’m out and about a lot more than the Venton Centre clients are….. The services Age UK are providing definitely lengthening lives, I’ve no doubt of that and I’m proud to be a tiny part of it.