Ashleigh Parker, 25, is a process scientist from Brighton, and she’s passionate about encouraging friendships across the generations. She’s launching a campaign to urge the UK’s young people to make friends with older people in their lives and communities.
Ashleigh has teamed up with Fixers, the charity which gives young people a voice, to create a short film sharing the joy of friendships across the ages. It shows Ashleigh chatting with an older man as he recounts the heartwarming, and funny, story of a first date he once had.
You can watch her film here:
Ashleigh’s campaign is timely, as an interest in intergenerational living is surging in the UK. Channel 4 recently aired Old People’s Homes for 4 Year Olds, which revealed how spending time with children caused dramatic benefits to the health and happiness of old people.
This September, a shared care home and nursery was launched in London, and work on the first UK shared housing development for students and the elderly is expected to start soon*.
‘I love these projects – they’re exactly what we need to break down stereotypes and bring everyone together,’ says Ashleigh. Her interest in the elderly began when she was 16, and some Wii games consoles were donated to the care home where her mother worked.
‘I had to teach everyone how to use them, and it was so much fun. I loved hearing all the residents’ stories. One, called Charlie, had so many happy memories of his life working as a bricklayer, which he’d absolutely loved. He really inspired me. “
‘For so many young people, life’s all about money, success or fame. It’s about celebrities, trying to look pretty and do the most. If more young people spoke to the elderly they’d realise there’s more to life than being materialistic, or just what you see in mags and on TV. Charlie taught me that whatever you do, as long as you’ve adored it, you can be totally fulfilled by, and passionate about, the life you’ve lived. That’s what really counts!’
In 2015, Ashleigh started volunteering with a befriending scheme, The Neighbourhood Care Scheme, where she committed to an hour a week visiting an elderly lady, Pat, whose family lived far away. Apart from brief visits from carers, Pat spent her days alone.
‘She wanted someone to chat and play Scrabble with, and she was such a character. If I beat her, she’d joke “you’re not coming round again! You’re not allowed!” Soon Pat was one of my closest friends – and she told me she felt the same about me. That meant so much.’
Sadly Pat died recently, aged 95. Ashleigh was heartbroken but treasures the friendship they’d shared. ‘My visits made her day. But Pat had an equally positive influence on me, she taught me to always be myself and never let anyone else tell me who I can be.’
‘One of the biggest benefits for me is knowing I made someone happy. An hour a week is not a lot of time to give but the impact on the person you visit is incredible. It makes them realise there’s someone out there who cares about them – they’re not alone.’
Sadly, many old people are very isolated and feel estranged from the younger generations.
Laura Alcock-Ferguson is Executive Director of Campaign To End Loneliness, a network of British organisations working to prioritise loneliness as a public health issue.
She says: ‘Loneliness is a looming social crisis – in the UK, there are about 1,100,000 people over the age of 65 who are chronically lonely. And the impact on health is enormous.’ Research shows that loneliness has a comparable effect on health to high blood pressure, lack of exercise or obesity – and the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We all need friendship, support and someone to ask for help, no matter how old we are,’ says Laura. ‘So, it’s great to see young people befriending older people and challenging the notion that if you’re older, loneliness is simply part of life. It should not be that way. Our culture often views older people as being the same – grey, timid, and passive. That makes it easier for us to dismiss them. Ashleigh’s Fix will help to normalise intergenerational friendships and raise awareness of the issue, which is key to tackling loneliness.’
Ashleigh hopes her campaign will encourage other young people to commit an hour a week to visiting an elderly person.
‘There’s a growing division between old and young, often fuelled by technology,’ says Ashleigh. ‘A 16 year old might say “What are we going to talk about? I won’t have anything in common with a 70 year old, so why should I even try?”
‘It’s true that things are so different now from how they used to be. But they were 16 once themselves and because they’ve lived through so much, you’re bound to have much more in common than you’d think. They can probably listen to your story and give you a solution, or recognise they’ve been through a similar situation, or a friend of theirs has, and these are the steps they took… The younger generation should realise that we’re not so far apart as they think we are.’ In fact Ashleigh says her older friends have changed her whole outlook on life.
‘My older friends taught me not to take life for granted. While you do have choices, you also have to adapt to what life throws at you, without throwing hissy fits. If you’re in a job or relationship you don’t like, get out. You only have one life, and at 70 you want to be thinking, I really loved my life!
‘Many people might think that being a bricklayer wouldn’t be amazing, but Charlie loved what he did – and that’s what life’s about. So I now know to just get on with things, appreciate what you have and make every bit count.’
Ashleigh is certain that other young people will reap the same benefits and enjoy the same friendships with older people – if they just take the chance. ‘Some pensioners can go many days without any human contact whatsoever. It’s so awful. Even if my campaign gets just one person to consider volunteering, then I’ve done my job. Just one hour, it’s not much to ask – but it makes someone else so happy, and you as well!’
Fixers works with young people aged 16-25 across the UK by providing them with professional resources to help them campaign on issues they feel strongly about. The charity has helped more than 21,000 youngsters across the UK to have a voice in their community on issues such as cyber-bullying, self-harm, suicide or transphobia.
This project has been funded by The Blagrave Trust, a funder which supports vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people in Hampshire, Berkshire, Sussex and Wiltshire.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.fixers.org.uk