Bringing communities together to tackle loneliness

Alex Smith is the founder and CEO of The Cares Family, a community network organisation that brings together older people and young professionals for fun activities and friendship in our constantly evolving big cities. Alex is an Obama Fellow, one of UnLtd’s Pioneer social entrepreneurs, and appears in our podcast ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like… Loneliness.’

“In a few weeks, on May 6th, it will be nine years since my life changed. It's easy to remember the date because it was the day of the 2010 general and local elections, and I was standing as a council candidate in my home neighbourhood of Holloway in London. Around lunchtime, I knocked on what must have been my 200th door of that sunny day. Behind it I met an 84-year-old neighbour called Fred. 

After a little small talk, I asked Fred if he'd like to come and vote. He told me that he'd never missed an election in his life, but with some sadness, he told me that he wouldn't be voting that day because he hadn't been out of his house for three months. He hadn't spoken to anyone for that whole time apart from his carer who took him breakfast in the morning and tea at night. So Fred said he couldn't make it, not today. 

Spotting a wheelchair behind him, I cheekily suggested that if he'd like to come out and was comfortable with me pushing him down to the polling station, I'd be happy to help. Every vote matters, after all. I sensed that Fred desperately wanted to be heard, to exercise his democratic right. Fred agreed and while we were out he came alive, smiling, laughing and waving to neighbours he hadn't seen in months. But, Fred said, what he really wanted was to get a haircut.

The next day, having lost the election, I returned to my neighbour’s home and wheeled him down the road again, this time to the local barbers. As he sat in the chair, Fred told me his story. He'd been a performer on cruise ships and at the London Palladium in the 1960s. He loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack. He'd travelled the world and returned home to set up a shop in Camden Town – the fancy dress shop Escapade which had been my favourite shop when I was a kid. Fred and I shared many passions and interests. To me, he felt like a kindred spirit from a different generation and someone who, as we became friends over the coming weeks, I learned so much from. 

Nine years on that friendship has spurred many more, through The Cares Family which Fred inspired. It started as a small idea: I would bring a few older and younger neighbours together to share time and friendship, to reduce isolation and build community. But that small idea, North London Cares, snowballed and today more than 6,000 older people and 6,000 younger people have shared time and new experiences through South London Cares, Manchester Cares and Liverpool Cares.

I've learned so much along that journey because scaling a small idea into a national organisation is hard. We have had to iterate and reiterate, shift focus, adapt a language to communicate our values, appraise risk, develop policies, create new tools, raise £3million, and – most importantly – find, retain and occasionally lose wonderful, talented members of staff who are the people who have built our organisation and our impact. I've felt exhausted and no doubt I've been exhausting too – for friends, family and colleagues. 

But we've always tried to stay true to our values – that action, agency, authenticity, attitude, agility and accountability matter. With that in mind, in the coming months The Cares Family will be publishing the findings of a third major evaluation of our work. It will be an important moment. Not just because we hope it will show again that people sharing time, laughter and new experiences together is good for us all, but also because we want to help make impact measurement itself more relevant to the voices, priorities and needs of community, especially at a time of rapid change. 

It's that community – and that empathy – which will ultimately help us to solve problems like loneliness, homelessness and inequality. Ultimately, that's what Fred taught me nine years ago – that people being with people can confound and connect us, and help us all to forge a new togetherness, at a time when we need it most.”

Visit The Cares Family

Follow Alex on Twitter at: @alexsmith1982

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Alex Smith

Alex Smith is the founder and CEO of The Cares Family, a community network organisation that brings together older people and young professionals for fun activities and friendship in our constantly evolving big cities. Alex is an Obama Fellow, one of UnLtd’s Pioneer social entrepreneurs, and appears in our podcast ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like… Loneliness.’

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Alex Smith speaks on Loneliness along with others in our first episode of our podcast - 'How do you solve a problem like..?'

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