In a large kitchen, 20 women are ranged around two large tables, making chapattis. Their average age is in the mid 70s and they come here every day. Anyone can turn up and the women will feed them. They provide lunch for hundreds, making enough food to ensure that anyone who comes can be fed at any hour of the day or night.
I visited them this week at the Sikh temple in Handsworth, Birmingham, the Gurudwara Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, which was part of the inspiration for Agebomb. A few months ago I arrived at the Gurudwara to research a newspaper article about the possibility that the community might set up its own school. It was an interesting story, but what I was mainly struck by was the extent to which old people are essential to the Gurudwara’s success.
The women around the tables prepare vegetables, mix spices, make curries and produce an endless supply of chapattis, which are served piping hot and delicious in the room next to the kitchen, where anyone who wants to eat sits on the floor (everyone at the same level, expressing the Sikhs’ belief in equality) where they may be served by one of the women or, more likely, by the young men, often students, who work alongside them in the kitchens, lifting the heavy vats and pans or washing up.
‘I can’t imagine not coming,’ says Mohinar Khur Mandla, 73. ‘If I sit at home I feel sick.’
The greatest problem the elderly face in Britain is isolation. Research by MORI suggested that the most vulnerable people in society – a million of them – feel acutely isolated, with older women twice as likely as older men to feel trapped in their own homes. Too many old people never have to go anywhere – except perhaps, dispiritingly, to the doctor’s; there is nowhere that they’re needed.
The volunteers at the Gudwara meet a range of other people while contributing to an enterprise that simply couldn’t function without them. They have colleagues of all ages and derive an enormous sense of satisfaction from what they do. For them, the preparation of food is a sacramental act. They chant prayers while they pound their chapattis and believe the hotplates on which they work contain the prayers that have been said in the past. But the preparation, serving and eating of food is an essential human act – a spiritual act, if you like – and you don’t have to be religious to see why this is a vital service that they provide, or why it’s valued.
Contribution and participation are increasingly recognized as crucial to the wellbeing of older people, generating social capital and having a huge impact on mental health. The Sikh community hasn’t had to find a way of stimulating or creating participation, because it is simply how things have traditionally been done. The consequence, though, is that their old people have less time to be anxious and depressed. Mohinar (and she’s not the only one) says what she gets out of coming is ‘peace.’ Conversely, if she can’t come for some reason, she says she feels agitated, restless, and disappointed in herself and the world.
Britan Singh Sidhu is 73 and arrives at the Gudwara at 8.45 am. He often doesn’t leave until 10.30 or 11pm, regularly putting in an 18 hour day. He retired from the Post Office 11 years ago. ‘Since then, I’ve never had to worry about passing the time. There’s no time to pass.’ He conducts school tours, reads from the holy book, helps people fill in forms (claims or passport and visa applications,) mails out 1600 invitations to events seven times a year, deals with the responses and runs the office. He is also the archivist; one colleague described him as ‘a human search engine. When we want to know something, we don’t google it, we Britan it.’
Seva Singh Mandla is 84. Now retired, he previously practised law in Kenya, then in Britain. In the last 10 years he has supervised the building of a civic centre next door to the temple, applying for grant funding (including £2.5m from the European Regional Development Fund,) recruiting the first staff and setting in motion the design and build. The centre opened in 2006 and provides a wide range of services, including a low-cost gym, conference facilities, business training, education and social care. He doesn’t have a formal role. ‘I am like a spare part: I get tossed about depending on what people need’ – but his ambition for the next few years is to make the centre self-funding. ‘It is not the first reason I come here,’ he says ‘but I do know that it would reduce the quality of my life, and probably the span of my life, if I didn’t.’