16 January 2018

This morning the government announced the appointment of a minister for loneliness, a huge step forward to reduce the loneliness that affects about nine million people in the UK. To celebrate, we'd like to share the story of Marie Greenhalgh, who was determined to address the loneliness and isolation she saw affecting older people in her local community of Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester.

Marie's journey started simply, a befriending scheme and a series of social eating events in the spirit of The Big Lunch, and has now become a fully-fledged award-winning social enterprise. Today, Marie visits No. 10 Downing Street as a thank you for her work as part of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, of which Eden Project Communities is one of 13 partners. She shares with us what this means to her, what it means for her work and the big plans she has for making all communities age friendly.

Marie Greenhalgh, founder of Wythenshawe Good Neighbours

‘As someone who works at grassroots level, it’s exciting to visit No. 10. I know and understand real poverty and real need. I work with it on a daily basis. The intention [of the project’s work] is to make communities more age friendly, to create communities that are connected to older peoples’ needs so that they can better respond to them. Simple things like having a seat in high street shops for older people to rest on, or sharing where there are toilets available are practical steps that can make an elderly person’s life a lot easier.

Marie was thrilled to hear that the Government has appointed a minister for loneliness, and hopes that this will lead the way for more:

We want to push for the creation of a minister for ageing – someone in government who thinks about our future as we age, not as a drain but as an untapped resource, a wealth of experience and skills that don’t simply die after you retire.’

Building on their original idea of social eating schemes, Marie and Wythenshawe Good Neighbours want to expand on the idea of resource provision for the elderly in the community.

‘For many older people a key change in their life comes through ill health, immobility, bereavement and retirement and we feel that Wythenshawe Good Neighbours goes some way to help our members extend their friendship group and plan a better future. Many of our members say that attending the lunches can help them feel more organised and energised to tackle everyday issues. We feel that helping older people regain confidence to make personal decisions about their health and wellbeing is what we do best.’

Marie has big plans for the next three years, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. She recalls how September was a shaky month for the project:

‘We honestly thought we could really struggle, but little by little grants and funding came through and we now have a three year head start. I’ve never had a head start before and it means we can finally get our business heads on and plan our growth.’ 

They have recently been awarded the Our Manchester: Voluntary and Community funding, which will kick in in April of this year, and an Award for All grant from the National Lottery. This funding will allow for a full-time project employee, and also mean that Marie will, for the first time, begin to be paid as a part-time employee, in addition to running the project in a voluntary capacity.

The end goal? To open a permanent resource space – The Living Room for Later Life Resources Centre. 

‘We’d like to rent a space on the highstreet so we can offer these services permanently. We want it to look like a living room, so it’s a familiar and comfortable environment.’

They hope to offer a sitting service as part of the Centre, a space to give carers a place to come for respite. For Marie, The Living Room for Later Life Resources Centre will bring the issue of age friendly communities to the fore by putting it in the direct view of local people.

Inspired by Marie and what she has achieved? Share her story or create you own. We can all do our part, big or small, to reduce loneliness and create better connected communities. You can hold a Big Lunch, organise an activity to bring your community together, or simply let people know you are happy to chat.

See what Marie and Wythenshawe Good Neighbours are up to now via their websiteFacebook page and Twitter.

Simple things like having a seat in high street shops for older people to rest on, or sharing where there are toilets available are practical steps that can make an elderly person’s life a lot easier.