As far as the general consensus goes, 2020 has been one heck of a tough old year. If apocalyptic worries about a worsening pandemic weren’t bad enough, we’ve had to spend a good chunk of the year cut off from the people we care about and prevented from doing a lot of the things we love.
For some of us, that increasing isolation was part of an already difficult situation. According to one study, two in five older people said that television is their main form of company. And while people over 75 are the loneliest age group in the UK, the second and third loneliest are people between 21 and 25 and 25 and 35 — young people.
But if we’ve collectively learned anything over the last year or so, it’s that there’s always more than a few rays of sunshine out there in the gloom, one of which is Manchester Cares. Based in Manchester, they help combat loneliness by linking up older and younger neighbours and foster a community through activities and friendship. Their services were a lifeline for lots of people before the pandemic, but having quickly adapted to restrictions this year, their online events and Phone-A-Friend and outreach programmes have kept people connected where they otherwise wouldn’t have been.
This Christmas, to help Manchester Cares continue the sterling work they do, we’ve teamed up with Sheffield artist/illustrator/printmaker/emcee, Kid Acne to produce a highly limited, high-quality eyewear cleaning cloth featuring his dread-busting ‘THIS TOO SHALL PASS’ design with all profits from sales going to Manchester Cares. (You can find out more about the cloths and bag yourself one here.)
We wanted to learn more about Manchester Cares, to find out about the activities and programmes they provide and to hear how they’ve been getting on over this strange and difficult year, so we grabbed Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator Amy Saunders for a quick chat. This is how it went…
"...the reason we want to bring these two groups together is because we think there’s a lot they can gain from each other, in terms of that connectivity and having that root in a place." - AS
Hi Amy, thanks for dropping by. Can you start by telling us a little bit more about Manchester Cares?
Yeah, sure. So we call ourselves a community network. We try and stay away from services or phrases like ‘befriending’, or anything like that. We really see ourselves as a mutually beneficial community network. It’s all about bringing together older and young people.
The older people in our network tend to be in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. They’ve lived in Manchester for a long, long time - sometimes fifty or sixty years - and they know the history of Manchester but maybe now haven’t got the same connection. They can’t necessarily recognise the city centre because it’s very different; it’s changing very rapidly.
The other half of our network are young professionals or young people. These tend to be people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who have made the move to Manchester for work or University and although they’ve got loads of connections - so loads of Whatsapp groups, loads of Facebook groups - they’ve not necessarily got close friends or family here.
The reason we want to bring these two groups together is because we think there’s a lot they can gain from each other, in terms of that connectivity and having that root in a place.
It sounds like you’re doing some really positive things. How did it all get started?
We actually started down in London. So there’s North, East and South London Cares. North and South have been going for 8 and 9 years and East is the newest one which has been going for about a year. We’ve got a sister charity in Liverpool as well.
Manchester started three years ago with a ‘Desert Island Discs’, an event where people choose some music and then share their memories around it. Now we’ve done just over three hundred social clubs...
Yeah. And we’ve got just under sixty friendship matches, which is the one-to-one matching programme. And ten to fifteen activities every month which older and younger neighbours can get involved with.
So yeah, it’s been exciting. It’s been a big period of growth.
Inter-generational pals, Alfie and Nora
Can you tell us more about the services Manchester Cares provides?
We’ve got three main areas. We’ve got our social clubs, which are the group activities. Obviously previous to COVID these were in person and we’d go to the theatre, we’d go to the Hip Hop Chip Shop, which is in the Ancoats area, for a chippy tea…
...you can’t beat a chippy tea.
We’ve been out to pub quizzes too. We try with our social clubs to go to areas in the city centre that actually used to be the older neighbour’s local but now feel alien to them because pints are like six quid and it’s all a bit fancy with craft ales and all that — it’s not just a pint of lager anymore. So we try and take them to those areas so they can experience it, see what it’s like, and feel welcome there as well.
The second programme is called ‘Love Your Neighbour’ or ‘Phone A Friend’. That’s where we match up older neighbours who are maybe slightly less mobile or have got less confidence with the younger neighbours and they’ll just have one person that they speak to three or four times a week. It’s a way to make a new friend.
"We help them with Citizens Advice, or staying warm at home - all sorts of different things that anyone could need help with." - AS
I myself have got a match called Diane. She was eighty-six yesterday and I call her my Northern Nan. She’s a really good friend of mine now. We have Chippy Teas together each week - even if it’s distanced. I’ve sent her McDonalds through Deliveroo and all sorts, so it’s been really nice.
Our third area is my job, which is outreach. This is where we help all the neighbours with all the other things that might be barriers to them being sociable. It’s very hard to convince someone to come to a pub quiz if they’re worried about their bills or worried about their health. So we try and help them with those bits first before we get them to an activity so they can really enjoy it and be relaxed and get stuck in. We help them with Citizens Advice, or staying warm at home - all sorts of different things that anyone could need help with.
So you cover a lot of ground. Are there favourite activities amongst the neighbours that have been really popular?
For sure. The Chippy Tea is the ultimate favourite. It’s in Ancoats, which is the super edgy bit of Manchester, and it’s called Hip Hop Chip Shop, which already makes it sound cooler. Most of the older neighbours are like: “What is Hip Hop?” So you have to explain all the hip hop records that are on the wall and stuff like that.
They’ve been really great. Just before lockdown, we started having a monthly partnership with Hip Hop Chip Shop and we’d go there once a month and they’d put on a bit of a spread and everyone would have a little bit of fish and chips and a get-together.
It’s been a favourite through lockdown as well. They actually offered to deliver fish and chips for us. A couple of weeks ago, fifteen older neighbours received a chippy tea on their doorstep and it was a nice way for them to still feel like they were coming along and doing something special but it was just from the comfort of their own home.
Alfie and Nora meet up for a chat
How many neighbours do you work with in total?
We have 670 older neighbours who are on our mailing list. And we’ve got just over 300 volunteers, our younger neighbours, who receive our monthly email, and they can come and get involved in as many activities as they want to.
...so quite a few then?
Yeah! It’s nice to have such a big network. Because it means that they can dip in and dip out when they want.
What has the response been to Manchester Cares?
This year has been very different to previous years. We’ve had some really good feedback in terms of getting people online. We had our birthday party a couple of weeks ago and one of the old neighbours did a little thank you to us and said that it’s actually kept them going through lockdown and really looked after their mental health because they’ve had people they can connect to regularly. He lived on his own, right in the middle of town, and wouldn’t have been sociable if it wasn’t for the online activities or speaking to someone over the phone.
This year we’ve made 270 interventions, so that’s 270 actions for older neighbours. So that could be things like sorting out someone’s broken boiler, helping them with housing issues, helping them make sure they’ve got their prescriptions - that’s been a major one over the lockdown.
...Yeah, I bet.
And linked to that, we’ve made 112 referrals to partner organisations. So for example, if someone needs help with their mental health, we might refer them to Age UK for some counselling. We’ve done that 112 times with different organisations, which is really nice. It means we’re working closely with other charities and other groups in Manchester and that’s definitely something that we take pride in.
You’ve touched on this a little, but how would you say COVID has affected Manchester Cares and the older and younger neighbours?
In terms of how it’s affected our services, it’s definitely been really hard to move everything online or over the phone. Because quite often, older neighbours aren’t online or they might know how to use a computer or a smartphone but they won’t have internet access at home because that’s the most important thing and the most important thing when you’re looking at getting online. So that’s been really hard.
"...through Phone-A-Friend, even more younger and older neighbours want to get involved as it’s a way to create a wonderful new friend and someone to rely on in such a worrying time." - AS
The demand has definitely increased. With our social clubs our focus has been moved towards tech support, getting people online through coaching on how to use Zoom or getting a new device for them to use. We’ve had some brilliant clubs and it’s been amazing to see familiar faces - who would have always been at the theatre with us - as well as some new faces too.
Additionally, through Phone-A-Friend, even more younger and older neighbours want to get involved as it’s a way to create a wonderful new friend and someone to rely on in such a worrying time. For example, me and Dianne have been doing her shopping together because I can do it all online for her and she can tell me what she wants. I ordered 15 pairs of slippers for her the other day for her extended grandchildren!
...that’s a lot of slippers.
That side of things has really grown and it’s been really nice to see. It’s been the same for the younger people too, they’ve not been able to go home and see their family so it becomes their family.
Manchester Cares has hosted loads of online events, like this online voguing class which took place over Manchester Pride this year
If someone wants to volunteer or take part in Phone-A-Friend, how can they get involved with Manchester Cares?
It’s all done online. If you head to www.manchestercares.org.uk/get-involved, it’s really easy to sign up on there. We ask volunteers to do a fifteen-minute induction, which takes them through the dos and don’ts of coming along to clubs and being part of a friendship. And then, they’re ready to come to social clubs.
If they want to take part in Phone-A-Friend, we do a bit more training with them. But it all goes through the same channels.
...And are there any other ways to support Manchester Cares?
Of course. People can donate (you can do that here). So if they want to support a club with a monthly donation or if they want to support a certain friendship with a monthly donation they can do. To run a club, when we were doing them in person, it costs £10-20 to get tea and biscuits for everyone, so a really small amount, like £2 - 3 a month, makes a big difference.
And there’s also ways to get involved in outreach. That’s my side of things. This week, we have volunteers doing wrapping of thirty Christmas presents for older neighbours. And on Monday, we’re wrapping thirty Christmas Puddings and custards. So we appreciate people coming to help with things like that because... I’m terrible at wrapping.
...You’re not the only one. Are you ready for Christmas? What have you planned over Christmas for Manchester Cares?
A few different things. We’ve got lots of Christmassy social clubs. We’ve got pub quizzes. We’ve got a home wreath making event on Monday where all the older neighbours will receive a craft pack and then they can make their Christmas wreaths all together over Zoom.
And then on New Year’s Eve, we’ve got a New Year’s Eve party which will be all the branches altogether, so London, Liverpool and Manchester all have a huge Zoom call with hundreds of neighbours on one call.
...That sounds like a lot of fun.
It’s really chaotic but it’s brilliant.
Our one-to-one friendships have got loads of lovely things planned like mince pies and mulled wines when they’re having their phone calls.
And for outreach, we’re going to be delivering Christmas presents and letters and thoughts for people who maybe won’t be with friends and family over Christmas. That’ll be happening over the Christmas period and it’ll be done by me, driving around in my little Fiat.
...Like one of Santa’s helpers. Well, it looks like that’s all we’ve got time for. Thanks very much Amy! We hope you have a great Christmas and we wish you and Manchester Cares all the best in the New Year.
If you want to support Manchester Cares, find out even more about them on their website. If you treat yourself, or a loved one, to one of the cloths we made in collaboration with Sheffield-based artist Kid Acne, you'll be chuffed to know that all profits will be going directly to Manchester Cares to help them continue all this sterling work they're doing. Shop them here.