With a little help from new friends…the Southwark Circle story

Linda Merron

Linda Merron

‘I haven’t had such a good time in my life…ever, I think.’

Linda Merron, who was 60 in March, suffers from ME, heart disease and Crohn’s fibromyalgia. When her 24 year-old daughter Rosie moved away last year, taking her social life (which was also Linda’s social life) with her, she started to worry about loneliness and the implications of ageing. ‘I thought that once I hit 60, people would start treating me like a simpleton. Pensioners are portrayed in the media as foolish and vulnerable; I didn’t think there would be much to look forward to.’

I met Linda at her house near Elephant and Castle in South London, where she was having lunch with her friend, Carmen Hortal, 81. The two women met through Southwark Circle, the first example of what its founders hope will become a national, even international, association of networks of older people. In the year since Southwark Circle started, two other Circles have got going, in Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk, and nine more are at the business planning stage. The aim of each of them is to build relationships locally, enabling members to participate in their communities and assert control over their lives.

Linda has had a tough time. After she developed ME and her marriage broke down, she was allocated social housing in the Isle of Wight, where she was bullied by her addict- and prostitute-neighbours. In 2003, she managed to swap her house for the one she now has in Southwark, but it wasn’t particularly easy to meet people, especially being ill.

She joined Southwark Circle after reading about it in a council newsletter. ‘It took a bit of courage, but I rang up, and Daniel [the managing director] came round and told me that you could buy tokens that would pay for help – I’m about to get someone round to put up brackets for my hanging baskets – and about all the social events. The Christmas party was coming up, so I went to that. Southwark Circle arranged a minibus to pick me up, which was a good way to meet people before I had to walk into the room. The driver, Eric, introduced me to Carmen because we both like photography. She and I exchanged email addresses and telephone numbers, and then she rang me up and invited me to the cinema. We went to the National Film Theatre and we’ve been friends ever since.’

At one level, Southwark Circle is a cheap handyperson service. If, like Carmen, you need your curtains putting up, you can use one of your tokens, purchased for £10 each. These pay for roughly an hour’s work from one of Southwark Circle’s registered and CRB-checked helpers; many members use a token a month. The helpers are a mixture of volunteers, hourly-paid helpers and professionals (retirees, as well as current tradespeople). Men more often join a Circle as helpers than members, then expand into other activities.

‘There are some things you can get for free if you are old and in social housing,’ Linda points out, ‘but paying a tenner keeps your pride together. Private services are very expensive – you’d have to pay £60 to get a private plumber out to unblock your sink. But there’s nothing wrong with paying: if you know you can pay, you’re more inclined to ask for help.’

A third of helpers are themselves over 50. They are encouraged to chat and socialise while they’re hanging your mirror or tidying up your garden. The Circle model offers what Daniel Dickens describes as ‘little bits and pieces of practical help, when you need them.’ There is a financial element to the relationship between member and helper, but no money changes hands directly and, since the scheme doesn’t operate at commercial rates, there is space for other elements too, for friendship and reciprocity.

At another level, a Circle is a network on which members can call for recommendations. ‘I had a bit of trouble with my car and I’m terrified of mechanics, who I think are always trying to rip me off,’ Linda says. ‘I got Eric’s number after ringing up Southwark Circle for a recommendation. He has his own small garage. We agreed he couldn’t do this for the normal £10 an hour, but he only charged me £40. Another garage had quoted me £150.’

At another level again, a Circle is a social network. A couple of days after I saw Linda and Carmen, they were planning to join a Southwark Circle picnic in the park. There are get-togethers to watch big sporting events, to have debates, to listen to concerts, plus informal meetings, like this one over lunch. Some events are organised centrally, some hosted by helpers or members. ‘I went to the opera for the first time in my life with an opera buff from Southwark Circle,’ Linda says. ‘It’s something I’d never have done otherwise.’

In practice, people tend to join because they need one or two things doing, jobs around the house. They start taking part in social activities, and move on in time to learning. Participle, the public service design company that developed Circles, sees the handyperson service as a Trojan horse, taking older people into areas that they may not have imagined, which are generated by bringing together people with different skills and enthusiasms who may never have had the opportunity to be useful before and may well underestimate what they have to contribute.

Circles started from the premise that the population is ageing, yet existing public services are almost at breaking point. Participle sought to harness the resources of older people themselves to create services that would improve their quality of life – where ‘services’ means not simply getting your drain unblocked, but generating and maintaining well-being.

That’s quite a nebulous idea and, you might think, a difficult sell. How, for a start, do you measure success? There’s no happiness quotient against which to test Linda’s state of mind before she joined Southwark Circle and since. Research has shown again and again that people with strong social networks tend to stay healthier longer, but the number of people who aren’t turning up at their GPs’ surgeries is quite difficult to count.

The Circle idea has proved attractive to politicians, all the same, because they can see the potential for resolving a looming funding crisis. It’s estimated that on current trends, funding for social care will have to triple in the next twenty years. Councils that are already under pressure are already starting to ration care services, with the result that fewer and fewer people are receiving any help at all. Southwark Circle should perhaps be called Benign Circle: it seems to promise that people can help themselves by helping each other, leading to fewer cases of depression, better health and wellbeing, and reduced demand on care services. David Cameron has praised the idea on more than one occasion, as here, for example, at the Conservative Party spring conference in 2009:

In the London Borough of Southwark, a new social enterprise called Southwark Circle is delivering vastly improved care services for less money designed by elderly people for elderly people using local social networks to bring real improvements to people’s lives.

If Circles are to spread, though, courage will be required. Politicians will need to invest in something that anecdotally appears to work extremely well, and which looks like common sense, but which is very hard to measure. And to do that, they will have to think radically about what constitutes resources, acknowledging that while public funding will still be needed, it will increasingly be one part of a social care mix that will also include unpaid carers, voluntary groups, paid for services and peer-to-peer support. What the Circle model does is yoke all these together and make them easily accessible to its members. What it also does, more problematically for politicians, is take away control from the centre and disperse it.

Southwark Circle developed out of what Daniel Dickens describes as ‘deep dives into people’s lives’ in Southwark, designed to explore how people were living as a prelude to designing services that met their real needs. An 18-month study was funded by Southwark Council, Sky, and the Department of Work and Pensions and began with no preconceptions, the research unfocused. It was a question of ‘seeing what’s in their fridge, of just talking to them.’

One of the conclusions the researchers reached was that for many people, the Third Age, popularly imagined as a time of happy leisure, of cruises and golf courses, is a fiction. It’s a lifestyle that requires affluence, for a start. Marc Freedman has written about the creation of retirement by insurance and real estate industries in America as a marketing device for their products, and the ethic of ‘busyness’ with which it was subsequently invested. But for many people in Southwark, Dickens says, this lifestyle barely exists, even as a sort of mature gap year. For many of the over 50s Participle interviewed, work was quite often succeeded rapidly by isolation, ill-health and a sense of life going downhill.

The Circle formula aims to re-invest the Third Age not with a narcissistic busyness for its own sake, but with relationships, helpfulness, participation and neighbourliness. In some ways, the Circle re-imagines the multicultural streets of 21st century London as a village in which everyone knows enough people, and whom to go to for help and solace.

Participle launched Southwark Circle in 2009; a year on, it has 300 members aged between 43 and 96. There is no enforced age limit; the social enterprise mission is to improve the wellbeing of older people, but part of the appeal is its universal usefulness and intergenerational quality. By the end of the three years of startup funding, Dickens says, the scheme will be self-sustaining.

Dickens describes the Circle as an ‘on-demand service for life’s bits and pieces.’ This is true, but too modest, because it’s clear that it brings in its wake a lot of other things that are harder to articulate, but more precious.

Carmen came to London from Santiago in 1995, and has been studying photography at the London School of Communications. ‘They told me I cannot continue unless I learn computer-assisted photographic manipulation,’ she says. ‘I have good marks, I am working in black and white and developing in my bathroom, but they say I cannot continue without knowing computing. The combination of the computers and the language makes it difficult for me to learn.’ Through Southwark Circle, Carmen found someone to train her on her Mac; she has been able to go on studying. And as she points out, she also now has a solution to the hinge that’s come off one of her cupboard doors: ‘Before Southwark Circle, I did not know whom to call.’ And she has Linda, to come with her to see her beloved British thrillers, her French and German films. ‘She has,’ says Linda, ‘introduced me to all her favourite directors. It’s great fun. We’re so grateful. It’s made such a difference to our lives.’


Carmen Hortal


3 thoughts on “With a little help from new friends…the Southwark Circle story

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