Breaking Social Isolation – Elderly Club in Northolt

Suchismita Majumdar, Research & Policy Officer, ESDEG

ESDEG was founded in 2005 by the members of the Somali refugee community to help their children bridge the attainment gap in schools. Very soon it became apparent to the founding members that the elders in the community were another vulnerable group who needed their support. The elderly are socially isolated, they live alone after their adult children have left home, they often have language barriers, coupled with failing health, poverty and low self-esteem, they are confined to their homes and hardly venture out. To break this isolation ESDEG launched the Refugee Elderly Club project in 2008. Through these weekly clubs ESDEG provided a safe space where the elderly could gather, socialise, eat a hot meal, exercise and get help with their GP visits, bill payments, fixing appointments etc.

Since the Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis the need for this project is stronger than ever. Over the years the scope of the project has broadened to include all the elderly members in the neighbourhood. The members attending our clubs belong to British, African, Caribbean and the Asian communities. Currently the elderly project is run from the Viking Community Centre in Northolt and the elderly come to the centre thrice a week for various activities from Ealing and the neighbouring borough of Hillingdon.  Since most of them live locally many of them walk to the Viking centre, while some do avail the public transport specially the bus. Sometimes they are dropped and picked-up from their homes by the project coordinator and also the physical instructor.

A total of 30 to 45 elderly women participates in these clubs on a regular basis. The group exercise classes are held on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday lasting for half an hour to an hour and Sharifa, our physical exercise trainer is qualified instructor with years of experience. She conducts age-appropriate gentle exercises like chair yoga and the elderly are encouraged to participate as much as their health permits.

The social club is run twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday.  Since the group has expanded Hodo Elmi, the Elderly Project Coordinator noticed that some of the ladies with language barriers were being very quiet and not participating in the group. When she had a chat with them separately, the ladies shared that they found it hard to follow the conversation and were shy to speak out in the larger group. When Hodo asked them what they would like to do instead, majority of them mentioned that they would like to spend their time studying the Koran. Hence Hodo decided to split the social group into two further groups. The first one is the talking/social group where the elderly are engaged in various activities like playing board and card games, knitting, discussing various issues like loneliness and mental health, what they are watching on the television, the current affairs and news, health concerns, pets etc. Hodo says that mostly women who are fluent in English participate in this group. While the other group studies the Koran under an expert tutor Fatima who volunteers her time in every week to help the ladies in their religious studies.  

The groups are brought together for exercise classes and information sessions. Since January 2024 Hodo had organised a session on the Freedom Pass where Ealing Council’s Travel Team came to explain how to apply for a Freedom Pass, what is the qualifying age, where to apply etc. Another session was on Housing Advice where the Housing team gave a talk about managing and reporting damp in accommodations. The third talk was by a retired GP who came to speak to the group about any health worries the elderly had. Lastly members from Ealing Council’s Warm Homes team came to give out free samples and discuss ways to stay warm in the winter months.

Apart from this, the elderly are served both breakfast and a cooked lunch. For breakfast they are served tea, coffee, croissant, biscuits, fruits and then they are served a home-cooked hot lunch. The menu varies week to week, sometimes they are served fish and chips, some days pasta and salad, some days rice, beans, chicken and salad and in the winter soups and bread. Hodo goes onto add that most of the elders have no appetite left after a hearty breakfast, so she packs the food for them. Hodo says that she often packs extra so that it would stretch to a couple of meals.

Another important service provided by Hodo, the Project Co-ordinator is helping the elderly with paperwork, booking online appointments, calling customer care services on their behalf, translating for the Somalis, organising transport and accompanying the elderly to hospital appointments when they feel overwhelmed to visit big hospitals on their own. Hodo helps them navigate their way through various systems like the GP, physiotherapy, social services, income support, housing benefit, gas & electricity to name some. Some of the elderly are internet savvy, while some can’t even handle their smart phones.

According to Hodo ‘In the initial days we had to coax the seniors out of their homes, but now they come on their own. I also run a WhatsApp group where they chat and leave messages for each other. Also if someone goes silent, we enquire about their wellbeing. I can see the impact this project has had on the ladies, they are much happier now that they are not so isolated anymore.’