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Tea and Coffee Club: fighting ageism in the pandemic

Kristina Wemyss speaks to The University of York's Tea and Coffee Club about building bridges between generations

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Young people have faced the brunt of the blame for the spread of Covid-19 time and again. Many feel scapegoated and robbed of the experiences that shape a young adult. It is very easy for university students to feel resentful of this, particularly due to the government’s total neglect of our wellbeing and education. However, we are not the only victims.

Ageism towards the elderly was already deep-seated in UK society before the pandemic, but the virus worsened relations between generations in many ways. Pre-pandemic, there were high rates of pension poverty and the welfare system designed to care for the elderly was being dismantled bit by bit. Now, though, disregard for the safeguarding of the elderly has become more pronounced and unapologetic.

88 percent of deaths from Covid-19 have been people aged 65 and over — a figure that would cause enormous panic if it were any other age group. Instead though, the elderly quickly became abstract statistics as the death toll rose, with the public becoming desensitised by the constant influx of gloomy news stories about the elderly on their deathbeds. While it is obviously a tragedy, their deaths have been presented as inevitable in order to mask government failings. This disregard for the wellbeing of the elderly, in combination with blame being put on the young for the spread of the virus, has exposed deep generational divisions. Conversely though, the pandemic has also inspired some to build bridges between the young and old.

The Tea and Coffee Club at York started a buddy scheme at the beginning of the pandemic, pairing students with elderly residents in York. Through weekly phone calls, they check-in and have a catch-up with one another. Zoe Clarke, the society’s secretary, observes that the pandemic encouraged more students to join the society; “it has made young people more aware of how vulnerable the elderly are and how lonely they can be, encouraging them to make an effort and help out more”.

During the first lockdown, I myself became aware of how lonely life must be for older people, particularly those who have no family, which is why I decided to join Tea and Coffee Club. I was put in touch with a 90-year-old woman called Dorothy (name changed for privacy reasons). Despite the fact that I don’t know what she looks like (I only know her by her thick and endearing Yorkshire accent), we immediately became friends.

I went into the experience hoping to bring a little bit of light to someone else, but if I am honest, she has given far more to me. A lesson that Dorothy quickly taught me is how important it is to have a sense of humour, even during a global pandemic. Dorothy has lived through World War II, the loss of her child at a very young age, and more recently the death of her husband. And yet, her humour remains unparalleled. Now that she is in her nineties, she doesn’t fear death, an intimidating prospect for a 20-year-old student who feels that she has her whole life ahead of her. On one occasion early on in our calls, Dorothy joked when someone knocked at her door, suggesting that they had come to measure her up for a coffin. Dark jokes like these made me feel like a fish out of water at first. Now though, it is comforting to see a woman who has lived her life and is at peace with the fact that “what will be will be,” especially during a time when the future is so unpredictable for everyone.

It might be a stereotype that wisdom comes with old age, but Dorothy certainly gives top-notch life advice. Having met her husband as a young teenager, she stayed with him for the rest of his life, so Dorothy knows a thing or two about love, forgiveness and working out a domestic. Her own experiences of loss are awful, but hearing her speak about them is humbling. She reminds me to never take anyone for granted, and that no argument is worth losing someone you care about. As a history student, I also love hearing stories about how life was in York when she was growing up; from school days spent in air raids under York’s football stadium during the war to her days working in the famous Rowntrees factory. The Tea and Coffee Club’s weekly calls also give a lot back to the elderly too. Dorothy has very openly told me that our calls brighten her day, and no matter how low she is feeling at the start of our calls, by the end she has almost always forgotten about her worries, if only for a little while. The routine of checking in and catching up with each other weekly has been helpful for both parties during the pandemic when all other routines went out of the window. Speaking to Tea and Coffee treasurer, Olivia Magee, she says that the calls “give the elderly members something to look forward to in their week, someone to talk to about their life and their feelings. It’s so important for them to feel less alone when many of them have spent the last year and a half alone in their house.”

The Tea and Coffee Club has not all been plain sailing, though. Pre-pandemic, the society would bring the elderly residents onto campus for tea once a week, giving them the opportunity to get out and socialise. Speaking to the committee, it is clear that Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works, as “the society does not only aim to make connections between our young volunteers and our elderly friends but also to bring the elderly close to each other.” Unfortunately, we have not been able to bring the elderly together as the society used to. On the other hand, this has encouraged stronger inter-generational bonds. “With our weekly phone calls,” explains project coordinator Thalia Filippopoulou. “We emphasise more one-to-one communication.” In turn, our elderly friends tend to become comfortable enough to “open up to us about their lives.”

Not all of the elderly have felt as chatty as Dorothy during the pandemic, many have felt very isolated, lonely and frustrated as they have not been able to go out and occupy themselves or see their loved ones. This can make for difficult conversations. Sometimes it takes a little longer for the members to open up and feel comfortable with us, but once they do, Olivia says, “to be able to have a laugh and share stories with each of them is so special.”

News stories that have pointed the blame at young people for the spread of the virus have led many to believe that the elderly are prejudiced against us. This might be true of many people, but from my own experience with the Tea and Coffee Club, it isn’t always the case. Dorothy certainly does not resent young people, it is clear that she wants to be able to go out as much as we do. In fact, she has told me several times that she feels sorry that our generation has missed out on all of the experiences that shape young adults.

The committee cited similar positive experiences with their elderly phone buddies, having observed first-hand the importance of making an effort to “learn about and understand each other better”. All of the committee have clearly benefited from the scheme themselves, and are keen to encourage others to get involved. Zoe believes that all young people would benefit from building more relationships with the elderly “as it makes them more aware of a wider community of individuals and their life experiences.” Speaking to people from different generations is indeed a fantastic and humbling way to build stronger communities. As project coordinator Lucy Hemmingway states, it gives students the opportunity to break out of the “young people-orientated” university bubble and gain “new insights and perspectives to those that are shared at university.”

A common factor when speaking to the committee about why they decided to join Tea and Coffee Club was the importance of respect for the elderly. Respecting your elders is a hugely important cultural tradition in many other parts of the world, but treating others as you too would like to be treated yourself is a motto that should be universal. After all, who knows what the world will look like when the youth of today are in their 80s? If the situation is anywhere near as dire as the past year and a half have been, we can only hope that our government will be more mindful of us, and that the younger generation will be as supportive as the members of Tea and Coffee Club.

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