8 Things I Learned By Visiting Somebody Else’s Nan

As part of our #BREAKFREE from ageism campaign, Joanne Griffiths - who has been volunteering with women over 80 for the last 18 months - explains why it's so important...

I come from a small village in the North of England. The population consisted almost entirely of a) babies (and their parents / hangers on) and b) the over 60s. I grew up chatting to Edna in the greengrocer’s or asking Bob about his garden on my walk home from school. So when I moved to London, I thought it was the strangest thing that I hardly ever saw – let alone talked to – any old people. Where were they all? Who were they gossiping to? And who was making their cups of tea? That’s why I decided to sign up to be an elderly befriender through the charity Dorcas. Last year I befriended an 82 year old lady called Mary and learned quite a lot about her and myself.

YOU CAN LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PAST FROM A PERSON THAN ANY HISTORY BOOK

Mary had lived a fascinating life – growing up in the East End during the war, surviving the Blitz and air raid shelters, working during the early years of women’s emancipation. I learned masses about the area I live in from her – tales of old cinemas where now there’s only a Wetherspoons to be seen, anecdotes about how the neighbourhood has changed over the years and – more interestingly – what has ultimately stayed the same. Learning about the past from someone who experienced it first-hand is considerable more exciting than reading a textbook.

GRILL THE OLDER PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE WHILE YOU STILL CAN

What was it like being a kid when you grew up? How did you meet your husband? What was it like dating in those days? How did you feel getting older? – I asked Mary a lot of the questions that I wished I’d asked my gran when she was still alive. Reliving her memories made Mary happy and was fascinating for me.

PEOPLE OF ALL AGES ARE ALL DIFFERENT

It’s easy to buy into clichés about older people – they’re a bit uptight, a bit racist, a bit outspoken. We somehow imagine that the multitude of characters and opinions we see in younger people merge into one, slightly annoying personality in old age. Mary showed me that older people can be witty, politically-minded, opinionated and intelligent – just like people of every other age group, then.

OLDER PEOPLE AREN’T CHILDREN

People don’t turn into a censored, PG version of themselves upon retirement. There’s no need to patronise them, censor yourself or tiptoe around them. If anything, they have probably seen and experienced more than you (see: the seventies).

OLD AGE CAN BE LONELY

Coming from a large family, I used to picture the elderly like my own gran – surrounded by adoring children and grandchildren, enjoying her golden years in relatively good health. Mary taught me that this is not always so. Social circles gradually decrease as we get older, and those without family living nearby can find themselves facing the sort of isolation most of us in our 20s and 30s can’t even imagine. Add ill health into the mix and you can end up with a recipe for literally no human interaction other than carers or social workers. Two fifths of older people say the television is their main company. Seems a bit of scandal really.

… BUT IT’S NOT HOPELESS

Befriending is an easy, free way to make a really powerful difference to the life of an isolated older person. It helps the befreinder and the befriendee to feel more connected to their community and it connects different generations in a way that be really beneficial to the younger ones too.

IF YOU WANT TO MAKE TIME, YOU CAN MAKE TIME

I initially thought I’d never be able to commit to visiting Mary once a week. I could barely even make time to do my washing! But I actually found it remarkably easy – I chose a day, it became a routine and it always took priority because I knew how important it was.

VOLUNTEERING WILL MAKE YOU HAPPIER.

It’s a scientifically-proven fact that volunteering makes you feel good, and I always felt better after visiting Mary than on any other day of the week. 

Read more about Marie Claire’s #BREAKFREE campaign here.

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