Emma Rodwell volunteers with North London Cares, a charity that brings together young professionals and older ‘neighbours’ for regular clubs and meetings, including North London Stories, which Rodwell now runs. The face-to-face sessions have been suspended for a month now, but Rodwell explains how she’s finding ways to keep a sense of community going.
I’ve been volunteering with North London Cares for about seven or eight years, close to when it first started. I’d been helping look after my granddad, who had dementia, and when he died I wanted to do something worthwhile.
North London Cares hosts different clubs – film clubs, crochet clubs, parties – and I went along to North London Stories, which is once a month and you have discussions on a theme. I absolutely fell in love with it because it was about the older neighbours getting the chance to be heard. Going to a film club and having a cup of tea with them is great, but you’re not getting to speak to them for that long, whereas North London Stories is normally at least three hours of just pure chat.
I have to admit I do plan my life around North London Stories. The only time I’ve missed one was when one of my best mates was getting married.
A couple of years ago, the person who ran the sessions left as they moved away. I offered to run it while they found someone to do it permanently and I’ve been doing it ever since. We choose a topic each month as a group and we all sit round one big table – it feels like we’re a family sat round the dinner table having a chat.
I love seeing the way the pensioners have blossomed, it’s about empowering them and showing them that they really are valued. This has given them a way to shine, which is beautiful to see.
As soon as I heard they were suspending the clubs I was concerned because I know the damage of isolation and loneliness. I was especially worried for the people who don’t have family and live on their own, so I rang all of them as soon as the clubs were suspended and said: What do you need from us? Most of them were just grateful that someone had remembered them and cared. I felt quite overwhelmed hearing how moved they were, because it was just a phone call.
Some of the members are so lonely that I ring them every day, others have said once a week is okay. They’re all grateful and don’t want to ask for it but they’re so pleased when I do call, so it’s just non-negotiable to me. Some of the group are in their nineties so they’re particularly vulnerable.
I suggested to the charity that we run clubs on Zoom. Not all of the pensioners have the internet but some of them do. So the charity has just started doing online clubs and I’m looking forward to doing North London Stories online – it’ll be nice to see each other and hear each other. It’s going to be chaos because it always is but it’ll be good chaos. I’ve got to teach them all how to use Zoom first. I’ve done it with one of the group and he’s like: I can see you! I’m like: that’s the whole point!
I’ve started a newsletter for our group, I theme it like a club and send messages of love and hope. We always start our North London Stories sessions with a quiz so I got some of the older neighbours to contribute so it felt like a team effort. They all loved the newsletter – young and old. I was touched by how many of the younger volunteers said it was nice to have a sit down with a cup of tea and feel connected to the gang again.
One of the guys I’m matched up with is a keen reader and he was upset because the libraries are shut and he’d just finished his library book. I saw a lovely bookseller put on social media that he wanted to send ten pensioners three books over the next three months and would ring them for a chat after they’d read it. I got him one of the sets and he was thrilled.
I don’t think volunteering is the right word for what I do with North London Cares, because people think volunteering is all worthy but for me it’s genuinely a chance to catch up with old friends and to make new ones.
Our oldest member is 95 years old. I think we’ve got three in their nineties – they have a competition about who’s the oldest, which is funny. We have a lot in their seventies and a few in their eighties. But what I love about it is that you forget their age. I talk to my friends about how brilliant it is and they say: but what do you talk about? I say: we talk about everything that we talk about!
I’m in touch with most of the regulars from our North London Stories group, there’s about ten people I’m speaking to regularly. I’m always glad when they answer because you do worry when they don’t. They just want to chat. One of the ladies was saying to me last week: I just want to go on the bus or to the shops just because I want to speak to someone because I’m in my flat on my own.
People always say that North London Cares feels like a family. We’re all looking out for each other and we all want to be back together in the same room and able to give each other a hug. Until that point, we have to keep doing what we can do to keep everyone’s spirits up.
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