In this column I would like to share an idea or dream with you. It has its roots in the words of the prophet Zechariah spoken to a people who had been driven out of their homes and their beloved city. He tells of a time that is coming when “once again elderly men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem each with a cane in hand on account of their age, and the streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zechariah 8: 4-5). Recently I shared this vision at an AGM of our local community association, and one of those present (a senior officer in the council) remembered it. On reflection I think I can see why, because it is a picture that surely eovkes deep longing and affection from each one of us.
I was giving a brief paper summarising the first forty years of the life of the Maybank Community Association, and trying to look ahead. One of the suggestions I made was that we might consider our local neighbourhood to be an alternative version of “sheltered housing”. Rather than building a new complex of flats and houses and then appointing a warden and resource people who would be on 24 hour call, we might encourage elderly people to continue living in their own homes. And we, their neighbours, would be the ones on 24 hour call, supported by social care professionals and networks. In an age of smart communication, it seems eminently possible that help can be as readily accessible in a closely defined community as it would in a purpose-built complex.
The huge bonuses of the idea are not only that people can continue to live where they want to (in their own homes and familiar surroundings), but that rather than being in a setting where everyone is elderly or in need of support, they are living within sight and sound of children. They would be able to hear them playing, and if able to do so, could sit or stand outside watching them play (given adequate traffic control).
Not long after this I heard of Nightingale House in Clapham, South West London, where a nursery and a home for the elderly are to be located on the same site (The Times, 1st July 2017, page 3). The scheme seems to be bursting with creative ideas and a range of potential shared activities. But what caught my eye particularly was a comment by one of the senior staff of the charity that runs it. Speaking of an open day she said: “You could feel something different in the air with all these children running about. It just made it really happy. It lifts the mood and brings life into the home.” This reminded me of the time when Cicely Saunders told me of the day that they opened a nursery in St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham (that she had founded, and is also South West London). The residents/patients found that the presence, activities, comments and questions of the little children were a highlight of their day.
Despite this isolated example, it appears that the UK is coming to all this a little later than other countries: America, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore and parts of Europe are already engaged in what is called “co-location” of a care home and a nursery. I then discovered that in Hogeweyk in the Netherlands there is a nursing home designed as a “secure village” with houses, pub, supermarket and theatre “staffed by professionals to evoke everyday life”.
Put it all together and it doesn’t take long to figure out that rethinking a neighbourhood as sheltered accommodation isn’t a million miles away from where others are right now. Come to think of it this is what has been happening at Mill Grove (a residential community within the Maybank neighbourhood) for decades. There is no “age apartheid”, and little children, some with cerebral palsy, teenagers, young adults, and elderly people take it for granted that they will be enjoying each other’s company in a variety of ways. Let me give just a few. When the Pre-School has a “farm day” the parents of the children are encouraged to stay, and elderly neighbours coming to have Thursday lunch with us always look forward to joining in. It is the animals that bring everyone together. There is for example a very basic impulse in most people that makes them want to hold little chicks or ducklings in their hands (whether three years old or 102 years old!). Then at Christmas the Pre-school children and those from the Rose Walton Centre (for children with cerebral palsy) come to share with those who have gathered for lunch, singing carols, creating a Christmas crib, giving and opening presents, and lighting the Advent Wreath. These are, if you like, the formal or arranged meetings but it is the informal times, and the spaces in between where things really come alive. A little boy with cerebral palsy interrupting lunch to do a “high five” with everyone, and bringing tears of joy to the faces of those dining. Or an informal football match that just came about spontaneously.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider that most of the human race throughout history has lived in rural or urban villages (by which I mean local communities where people can walk to each other’s homes within a couple of minutes or so). We accept I think the nostrum that it takes a village to raise a child (and that this means that every villager has a role in parenting of some sort), but perhaps it still hasn’t sunk in that it needs a village to bring deep joy and smiles to the elderly.
We will see how this rather radical idea of a neighbourhood reconceived as sheltered accommodation develops, but meanwhile as we think about what makes a therapeutic community it seems to me that it is likely that the presence of young and old is a step in the right direction. The Irish and Scottish ceilidhs get it right: when a community celebrates it can only be truly effective and real when young and old both have a part to play. It won’t be the same part: the young will probably do most of the dancing, but what an added blessing it is to them, that there are those who take joy in watching them doing so, whether or not they lean on their canes!