Tea parties stir lonely back into the social whirl


Madelaine Baker's husband Joe died in September. Making the adjustment to life on her own has been difficult and she needs "something to look forward to, outside of your regular schedule". It is that "something" which has brought her to leafy Chigwell, where the 75-year-old sits around a long white table crammed with cakes, biscuits and smoked salmon sandwiches and chats away happily to 13 other elderly people.

The monthly tea parties in the Redbridge area serve one of Jewish Care's five Supportive Communities. The project, created to combat isolation, received an initial £100,000 government grant and is now funded by the charity at an annual cost of £20,000.

Mrs Baker said that with the loss of her husband of 45 years still "raw" and her daughter and three grandchildren not living nearby, a social gathering with those in similar situations was a lifeline. "If you're having a bad day, this supports you. I'm very thankful that there's something like this for me."

Charity Age UK's latest report says loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, causing anxiety and depression. Forty-nine per cent of Britons aged 75 or above live alone. But the percentage of over-75s in the Jewish community (12.4 per cent), is considerably higher than in the wider population (7.5 per cent).

Organised by 70 volunteers, the Supportive Communities tea parties bring together more than 100 isolated people. As participants form friendships, they independently arrange coffee dates, film outings, Scrabble nights and other activities.

People we engage in this programme feel less isolated

A regular at the Chigwell parties, Doreen Wajchendler's voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about her late husband, who came to Britain after surviving Auschwitz. With his Yahrzeit imminent, she took solace in the company of her new friends.

"It's wonderful," she said. "The ladies are lovely to give their time up and make a beautiful spread. I really admire them. And it gets us oldies together, which is a marvellous thing."

Sonia Dweck, who started the programme, noted that "so many people are living alone. Even if you go to the day centre twice a week, that's five days you might not talk to anyone.

"Every person we successfully engage in this programme feels less isolated and part of the wider community. No words can express the impact of this engagement on an individual's well-being and sense of value and purpose. As a caring community, it is our collective responsibility to reduce isolation and loneliness."

She added that by holding the parties at volunteers' homes, the project created close-knit groups. It was more difficult to achieve this at day centres.

"Older people don't have natural places to make new friends, so when you lose a partner and your children have moved away, it can be quite difficult. They come to community centres for an activity and they're quite nervous about asking to meet on another day.

"But coming together in someone's home is very natural."

Fiona Elias, who helps to run the programme, said it was "inundated" with requests for new groups.

"We're setting up a gentlemen's club in Golders Green and are in discussions with Romford - there are lots of opportunities." The other existing projects are in Golders Green, Stepney, Streatham and Finchley.

"It's not just about tea parties," she added. "It's about finding ways to engage everyone, which strengthens the community."

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