Why our older neighbours matter

Sure, we’re all crazy busy before Christmas but, says Alex Smith, let’s pause for a moment

'What if you felt the local pubs and bars weren't for you anymore?'
‘What if you felt the local pubs and bars weren’t for you anymore?’
It’s become fashionable, especially at this time of year, to bemoan how desperately, exhaustingly, often drunkenly busy we all are. Work parties, socials, seeing friends, in-laws, buying gifts and sharing GIFs for loved ones and people we’ve never met before. We’re just so tired: oh, we can’t wait for “the season” to be over so that we can get back to the monotony of January nights in, and throw tee-totalism in for good measure.

But what if a night in was your only option? What if you felt the local pubs and bars weren’t for you anymore, that your neighbours and the whole community had changed right in front of your eyes? What if too many of your greatest friends, your soulmates, weren’t around to share Christmas, and in any case the rough and tumble of our ever-changing city had just become a bit much?

In a world of Whatsapps and crammed diaries, of YouTube Mariahs, hurried gingerbread lattes and woolly jumpered Insta-friends, it feels ever-more important to stop, and to share a moment’s genuine pause with someone. So much of our modern city has been designed on what’s efficient; but what’s the point in saving time unless we do something to spend it, invest it, even suspend it – through pause, reflection, and interaction with others?

Over the last four and a half years since I founded North London Cares, I’ve seen so many young people benefit from those quiet moments with their seventy, eighty and ninety-year old neighbours. From Kentish Town to Kilburn, Highgate to Highbury, young professionals with hundreds of connections but few roots in the city have shared so many magical moments with their older neighbours, who often have deep roots in the area but few connections.

In that time scores of lasting new friendships and 52,000 new interactions have forged, through 900 storytelling nights, men’s cooking classes, domino sessions, ballroom dances, and through one-to-one visits on Christmas Day and throughout the year. Together, twenty-somethings who spend their weekdays in offices have also spent 14,000 hours with their older neighbours, sharing time, laughter and new experiences – and getting so much in return.

'People have shared dance moves old and new.' Alex Smith and friend. Photo: NLC
‘People have shared dance moves old and new.’ Alex Smith and friend. Photo: NLC
Many of those activities have been here in the wider area. The guys from the Carrots & Daikon Vietnamese cafe opposite The Forum took a cooking group across the ages. People have shared dance moves old and new, and ice creamed to summer days on the Heath. And one particularly memorable evening, octogenarians who’ve loved and lived in Kentish Town their whole lives joined a gaggle of young professionals for a mixology lesson in the local public toilets – now the fancy Ladies & Gents cocktail bar. What better expression of how Kentish Town has changed over the decades? And what better way to bring together two demographics, two worlds which live side-by-side but too infrequently interact?

In this rapidly-changing city, where globalisation, gentrification, the housing bubble, migration and digitisation have brought so much culture, so much life, but in doing so have transformed our landscapes in discombobulating as well as developmental ways, it’s more important than ever that we interact.

That’s what North London Cares seeks to do: to reduce isolation, to improve connections and confidence in our rapidly-changing world, to broaden horizons through new experiences, to establish identity in the community, and to reduce the gaps across social and generational divides. What we’ve found is a community network of 1,200 young professionals and 1,200 older neighbours who love hanging out together – and whose shared sense of mischief and misadventure create a timeless bond.

So in 2016, after John Lewis’ tones have disappeared again and the Royle Family’s Nana clangers are all dropped, why not sign up to be part of the North London Cares community? Because tackling loneliness and isolation in this country, and in our own back yard, will take an effort beyond Christmas: it’ll take the whole village.

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Alex Smith is founder of NLC. More info here. Follow @NLCares on Twitter

Head to our sister site Below The River for a series of short films on south London’s “hidden heroes”.

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