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The rise of the green granny

Last summer, for reasons that needn’t bother us here, I had to make a shirt the old-fashioned way , with fabric and a pattern and a sewing machine. The only person I knew who could help was my wife’s 97-year-old great-aunt, Peggy Parker.

Peggy is a brilliant and witty woman, but in the past few years her clothes-making know-how has been completely neglected. What a waste! Because from the moment she scented the fabric and the needles, Peggy was a woman possessed. She barked instructions and capered about snipping this, threading that and knotting the other, till I felt slightly dizzy.

And it suddenly dawned on me, dull-brained oaf that I am, that Britain’s elders have a lot to offer. With Christmas upon us, and the generations being thrown together for days on end, I daresay that many other people my age will shortly come to the same conclusion, if they haven’t already.

Because it seems that the combination of credit crunch and environmental concern is driving us to seek out the wisdom of other ages — wisdom that for too many years has been brushed off shamefully as the chuntering of old codgers too eager to talk about the privations of war and rationing.

One of the most remarkable exemplars of this new cross-generational trend is British charity Oxfam’s “Green Granny” service. The charity has recruited a crack team from a less wasteful generation to offer advice on things such as fixing a button on a shirt, darning socks and making delicious food from leftovers.

One green granny is Barbara Walmsley, a 71-year-old from Cookham in Berkshire, UK, who provides advice on YouTube and also answers queries submitted to “Ask a Granny” on the charity’s website.

“Every granny has her own tricks for saving money,” says Walmsley, “and I’m really glad to have the chance to share them with younger people.”

Oxfam’s Rose Marsh, who is younger than the grannies themselves, came up with the idea. “The main thrust of our campaign was to make people be greener but we thought: how do you do that in the credit crunch? And then we realised that the two things are the same — because if you live more cheaply it’s more green. And that’s when we thought about talking to our grandparents’ generation.”

The older generation have all the answers, she concluded, but for years we’ve ignored that: “There are all these skills that people are discovering today and treating them as if they’re miracles — like how to get rid of a stain. If I see that on YouTube I think it’s magic, but if I ask my grandma she knows all about it. This is knowledge that we’ve all lost.”

For Walmsley, the new-found status of guru is both welcome and unexpected. Her generation drew the short straw, she believes: “When we were young we were daunted by our elders and now we have to avoid saying the wrong thing with younger people. A few years ago, for instance, you would not have had any compunction about asking your children when they were going to start a family. Today you wouldn’t dream of doing that.

“I’m very fortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever been treated disrespectfully by family and friends. But in society generally the respect given to elders has slipped away. In the past, younger people would go to older people for advice. I don’t think that happens now. They talk to their contemporaries instead.”

What caused that to change? “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s something to do with families being so dispersed. They’re not popping into each other’s houses all the time.”

The environmentalist Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, is, like Marsh, convinced that the elderly have much to teach about living sustainably and he has actively harvested their wisdom for some time.

“To go to the elders and ask for their input is something that in many cultures would be instinctive,” Hopkins says. “But in ours it has been sidelined. One interesting thing when you do an interview with the elderly is that they always start by saying, ‘I don’t know why you want to talk to me; I’m sure I have nothing interesting to say to you . . .’ and then go on to tell you all this fascinating stuff.”

All the same, he recommends interviewing them one at a time. “I went to do one with a lady who had fascinating stories to tell about being a Land Girl on Devon farms during the war, but she said, ‘My dear, I have nothing interesting to tell you at all, so I invited my friend to come along as well’. A few minutes later he arrives and I start talking with the two of them.

“The problem is that one will say, ‘And down by the quay there was that shop, what was it called?’ The other will reply ‘Jameson’s’, to which the first will say, ‘Oh yes, Jameson’s . . . now they had three sons didn’t they?’ ‘Oh yes, Jason, he’s in Australia now. . .’ and so on. It was very hard to get any useful information.”

Alas, not everybody is quite so avid to share the insights of the elderly. They will do it, but only if they are paid first.

In April, a British pensioner named Jack Hammond hit the headlines after his son Michael placed an advertisement in the local post office offering £7 (about US$10.50) an hour for someone to keep Jack company in the pub.

The 88-year-old from Hampshire, UK, a retired electrical engineer, used to drink with a neighbour four times a week, but had recently moved into a nursing home to be closer to his family; his son, a chef, was concerned that he was isolated.

Hammond Jr had previously sought volunteers to accompany his father, but to no avail; the offer of cash made all the difference. He said he was “absolutely staggered” by the warm response to his advertisement.

A similar social need, and incentive structure, is addressed by Eldertainment, set up by brothers William and Heneage Stevenson, aimed at bringing students from top universities together with older people and, according to the promotional material, “encourage knowledge transfer and interaction between the generations”.

Meetings are relaxed and informal and the participants decide whether to make idle conversation, conduct fearsome political debate or tackle household tasks such as shopping and gardening. Each meeting is different. Many of the older generation have enjoyed being read to out loud. One insists on a highly competitive weekly game of Scrabble.

Everything comes at a price, of course. For the high-class companionship of students from top universities, the elderly — or their guilt-ridden relatives — must pay rather more for Eldertainment than Jack Hammond’s son pays for trips to the pub: individual meetings cost £30 (about US$45) an hour, although there is a special introductory offer of four one-hour meetings for £100 (about US$150).

Such intergenerational enterprise doesn’t always have to be one way, however. One thing the elderly have to offer — space — is brilliantly harnessed by Homeshare, a charitable scheme operating in several areas across the country.

A homeshare involves putting two people with different needs together. They also have something to offer one another: on the one hand somebody with a home who could do with help and a watchful eye, and on the other, a person who needs accommodation and is willing to give support in return.

Both the householder and the homesharer gain from the arrangement and feel valued and respected for their own contribution, allowing them both to enter into it with dignity and enthusiasm. Additionally, the costs to families and the wider community are low. But what’s it like in practice?

One couple who have benefited from this are Ruby Martin, 92, and Rita Northcote, a medical student from New Zealand who shares Martin’s home in northwest London, where the homeshare scheme is run by Vitalise.

Martin’s daughter set up the arrangement some years ago. “She didn’t want me to be on my own,” says Martin. “I have heart problems and if I had an attack and there was no one here . . .”

Did she have reservations about sharing her home with a stranger? “Not at all. I looked on it more as an adventure. I thought, ah, a new opening. What’s going to happen now?”

Northcote is Martin’s sixth homesharer. She’s had people from all round the world, including one man.

“Charles was a very interesting person from South Africa,” says Martin. “But they’ve all been very good. We have conversations and I ask about their country and where they live and I can explain to them what it was like in my day and the countries I’ve been to and what I’ve seen. Modesty aside, I think they do learn a lot from me.”

Northcote knows the scheme’s restrictions would be off-putting for many, especially people of her generation: homesharers are allowed just one weekend away from the home each month and must do at least 10 hours of companionship and help a week. Indeed, she wouldn’t put up with it herself — she says when I meet them together — if Martin were less congenial: “But we get on so well, despite the difference in our ages. We eat similar food and notice similar things and laugh at the same jokes. And Ruby is so positive.”

It’s a testament to their closeness that, by way of shorthand, Northcote calls Martin “granny” when talking about her with friends.

As a result of her homeshare, Martin has had much greater exposure to younger people than most of her contemporaries: “I couldn’t do without it. People of my age who don’t have that, I feel for them. It’s important to keep the generations talking to each other. It makes the world go round.”

Like Walmsley, Martin is unsure why that has fizzled out in recent years: “It was a different world when everybody in the street knew everyone else. You looked out for everyone else. In the war, the first thing you did in the morning was ask your neighbour if everybody was all right. I wish that kind of thing could come back without a war, but it has to be something very big to bring people together like that.”

Or does it? Since my shirt-making session with great-aunt Peggy, I have started to wonder if there might be some way to harness the skills and free time of other elderly people — for my own purposes and theirs.

With that in mind, I popped into the neighboring care home to ask if any of the residents would be prepared to teach knitting and crochet to me and my five-year-old daughter. Several hands shot up. Lessons start in January: perhaps we will film them and post them on YouTube.

by John-Paul Flintoff for The London Times, December 21 2008


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