Roy Warman’s wife, Phyllis, died in January 2015. Buoyed by well-wishers in the first few weeks of bereavement, the visits and telephone calls gradually dwindled, and he felt increasingly alone. Many of his friends have passed away, he does not have any family nearby and the couple never had children. He explains: “The longer it goes without speaking to someone, the harder it gets.” He describes loneliness as “one of the hardest things that you will encounter in life”, likening feeling low to “living in a void”.
Today he is part of the charity Age UK’s telephone befriending service that matches older people with like-minded volunteers for friendship or phone calls. Roy has weekly phone calls with a volunteer he describes as “like the daughter I never had” and he also has regular visits from another volunteer as part of Age UK’s face-to-face befriending scheme.
The kind of weekly phone call or visit that Roy gets are among the solutions to help ease the loneliness epidemic affecting 1.2 million older people in England; I’ve written about this for the Guardian today.
Age UK says that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that this has an adverse impact on mental health, and the challenge will increase as our population ages. In the next 20 years, England’s over-85 population is set to rise from nearly 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million.
The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.
He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”
An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”
What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.
He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”
He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”
In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.
While many of the creatives have had solo exhibitions since joining the project, this is the first time they are showing work that outlines how their experiences, including recovery, have influenced their art. The show asks visitors to consider the question “how far can one life-changing incident be seen in the artistic work you create?”.
In a related event this Saturday, the collective, which began 10 years ago, is involved in an free art workshop at London’s Southbank Centre. The event involves the artists encouraging the public to participate in on the theme of “what love means to you” with contributions acting as the basis for a collaborative piece at the Submit to Love studio. The workshop takes place in the Clore Ballroom at Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 11am – 2pm and is recommended for ages six upwards.
According to Headway, survivors of brain injury are often excluded from society, have lost skills, occupations and cannot communicate as they used to; art is an outlet for communication and self-expression. The charity is keen to reposition art from a simple rehabilitation activity to “both a vocation and passion project”.
* The exhibition, sponsored by Hyphen Law, is open 9am-6pm (Mon-Sat) and 09.30am–2pm (Sun) until Tuesday 23 February 2017 and entry is free. Venue: Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Theatre Square, London E15
The theatre performance, which takes place in different public spaces across the south London borough, is inspired by the fact that loneliness is increasing at a time when our our cities are becoming ever more crowded. The show has been developed using anecdotes, opinions and experiences of older people in south London.
The shows are performed in public spaces, from outside tube stations to public squares, in the hope that the shared experience of performance will spark the audience to have conversations and take action based on the show’s themes. Osborne says the aim is to provoke people to consider the issues highlighted by the performance: “It’s about your local community and how you fit within it,” says creative producer Chloe Osborne, “but also about what your responsibility is for ensuring that others belong in it too.”
I visited the Ley at the invitation of Chris, who volunteers at the centre; his life now is about as far removed from his past as is possible. The Krays ruled London’s gangland in the 1960s and were imprisoned for murder. Chris was present on the night Jack ‘the hat’ Mcvittie was stabbed to death. His presence and silence that night in naming Reggie Kray as the murderer resulted in Chris being jailed for 15 years.
Whilst in prison Chris, now 78-years-old, reflected on his life and the mistakes he had made. He wondered how he had found himself to be in such a position. Like many other prisoners Chris ‘found’ God. But unlike many others who use this as a cynical ploy to seek freedom early, Chris knew his life had to change and was determined to make that happen. He wanted to make a difference to others. On his release in the early 1980s he began working at the Ley. His voluntary work there includes accompanying people to court and generally giving them the encouragement to try and turn their lives around.
I had read about Chris’s work in his autobiography, The Kray Madness, and contacted him to discuss our mutual interest in helping people to turn their lives around. After a few phone calls, he invited me to Oxfordshire to a look around the Ley. The centre initially struck me as quite regimented, but it has to be that way to encourage the residents to make the efforts to come off drugs and show self discipline and determination. There is a strong emphasis on group discussions, peer pressure and support, openness and self responsibility.
We have different backgrounds and seemingly different areas of interest – me with mental health campaigning and Chris supporting the rehabilitation of people with addiction issues. Yet we both have a desire to use our life experiences to make a positive difference for others.
Chris has an influential role among young men because of his Kray connections, with much recent interest in his life thanks to the Tom Hardy film Legend – Chris advised on the movie. Chris is not volunteering as much at the Ley due to his age, but when he does he accompanies people to court, and generally encourages them to try to transform their lifestyles and behaviours. They see him as a positive role model and he can relate to them.
Supportive networks are vital to recovery and a focus on relationships is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week next week. Social contact is the best way of breaking down barriers, misunderstanding, and ignorance of mental illness. It is important for us to have good relationships for our own mental health in the sense of talking and listening to each other.
My own work, for example, has been aimed at encouraging men to seek help early for mental health issues and self-harm. My most recent media advisory role was advising the storyline involving the ‘macho’ character Zak Dingle in TVs Emmerdale during his depression storyline.
Tragically we have very high rates of self-harm among young men in my native north east. Much of this is a consequence of the damaging ‘Big boys don’t cry’ attitude among men, and the damaging misperception that men expressing their feelings is a sign of weakness. This is something Chris would relate to in his own work.
Challenging stigma and addressing feelings of shame is something Chris and I share as a common goal.
Through social media, Facebook, and social contact, we are both starting to chip away at the damaging defensive layering common to all tough guys. We are trying to convince men who think they are somehow immune from mental illness that nothing could be further from the truth.
We have discussed the idea of a joint project, perhaps a book, to try to reach out to men in particular who self harm and feel stigmatised because of having mental illness. Together we are determined to make a difference; we have more in common then we think.
As my piece on the Guardian website today explains, community nurses can be employed by NHS trusts, GPs, charities such as Dementia UK or private providers delivering NHS services. However, their numbers are falling. The decline might be attributed to primary care trusts transferring provision to other organisations under the government’s Transforming Community Services programme because those nurses moving to non-NHS providers are not captured in relevant workforce data.
The fall in numbers coincides with healthcare reforms that make their role even more important. “District nurses will be likely to play a significant role in the NHS reforms, particularly around new models of care that shift more care into the community,” according to Rachael Addicott, senior research fellow at health thinktank The King’s Fund.
By 2025 there will be one million people with dementia in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society; a project I reported on today for the Guardian online is proving the impact of arts-based therapy on people with the condition.
Take Eddie (not his real name). When he first met arts practitioner Jill, from London-based arts group Age Exchange, he was withdrawn and uncommunicative.
Eyes downcast, head bowed, hands clasped and legs crossed; Eddie, an introverted wheelchair user, had been in a dementia care home for a decade when he began sessions Jill.
Over six weekly reminiscence arts sessions – work that explores memories using creative activity – Jill noticed how Eddie became “awake, sitting upright in his wheelchair, trying to talk, being better at regulating his mood and behaviour … He felt safe enough to allow himself to express some of these stored up energies and feelings through movement and making sounds which freed him and allowed him to start opening up and connecting with people.”
A simple gesture after the final session – previously unimaginable – reflected the transformation. Jill recalls: “I was very touched as we said goodbye; he extended his right hand towards me, I took it and we shook hands.”
Working-age ill-health costs the UK economy an annual £100bn, and in a piece for the Guardian online, I give a snapshot of what some employers are doing to improve the health of their staff.
It might be easy to dismiss lunchtime yoga sessions or in-house physio clinics as optional extras (or a “perk”) but the stats on workplace illness suggests a focus on wellbeing makes economic sense. More days are lost through staff sickness in the NHS than elsewhere in the public sector (according to the government’s 2009 Boorman Report) and sick leave costs the health service £1.7bn a year.
Employers are starting to recognise their public health role; almost 400 organisations have, according to latest figures, pledged support for the Department of Health’s public health “responsibility deal”.
You can read the full piece, part of a supplement on physiotherapy, here.
The graceful depiction of birds, above, is among the art works on display in a new exhibition celebrating diversity.
I’m sharing some of the pieces here because I was taken by the broad range of subjects and contrasting styles of the artists. Most of the pieces are inspired by nature and natural landscapes.
The paintings were created by participants in the Nexus project, run by care organisation Surrey Choices, and are being exhibited at the Sunbury Embroidery Gallery until March 1 (entry is free). Nexus provides specialist support and activities for adults with physical disabilities and mild learning disabilities.
The organisers, a company specialising in overseas moves, explains: “MoveHub and their partners noticed that families were forced to just throw large volumes of food when they moved abroad – due to customs restrictions – and decided that instead, this food should find its way to people who really needed it.”
The project estimates that the food thrown away during moves across the UK could fill 160 supermarket delivery vans each week. While it acknowledges it “can’t reverse food poverty in the UK”, the scheme is an attempt to “contribute to the organisations helping people get back on their feet”.
Among the charities benefitting from FoodHub is homeless charity Centrepoint.
It is estimated that around 3.5m tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK and this latest drive is a welcome addition to schemes like the “community supermarket” plan, under which unwanted supermarket food is already re-distributed to needy families.
* This is the last Social Issue post for 2014 – the blog will be back in January. Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, contributed to, commented on and got in touch over the last 12 months, your support’s very much appreciated.