What's 60 years between friends? In one London borough, a deceptively simple mail-reading service for the elderly is producing far-reaching benefits for young and old, reports David Newnham
Old people are boring. They smell and they knit. As for teenagers, they are loud and pushy and when you meet them on the street they mug you. Antonia Lee, a senior teacher at a west London secondary, is not expressing her own views, of course. She is summing up the prejudices that infect different generations - the young and the old - in a place where many children have no direct contact with their grand-parents.
As head of community services at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park, Antonia is committed to breaking down such attitudes. For the past two years she has drawn heavily on a local scheme that brings young and old together with extra-ordinary results.
Behind the cumbersome title of the Intergenerational Reading Project lies a simple concept - namely that pupils in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea pay regular visits to blind or partially-sighted pensioners to read and explain their mail to them.
But the simplicity is skin-deep. In reality, the project is a complex and subtle means to a number of ends, only one of which has to do with opening letters.
At the heart of the matter lies the mutuality of the arrangement. "It is an equal learning partnership," says Eleanor Creed-Miles, a trained counsellor and the project's organiser since 1997.
Many of the old people are isolated, both by their age and by their failing sight. But what they gain from the loan of a good pair of eyes for 90 minutes each week, they give back in terms of experience.
"They are giving as well as getting," says Eleanor. "I always put it to my service users in that way. I feel very strongly about it."
While the participants are distracted by what they both believe to be the central activity - the reading and sorting of letters - genuine and often deep friendship grows quietly and unselfconsciously. "I'm very rigorous in checking how people are getting on," says Eleanor. "It's a legal responsibility, apart from anything else. But I've often found that the relationships are so successful that I don't need to work terribly hard on it."
Much of this success is the result of thorough preparation. Both parties in the relationship go through a rigorous selection process. Eleanor's regular appearances at morning assemblies at the eight secondary schools, including four independents, bring in dozens of volunteers. But that is only the beginning.
"I send an application pack to every individual, explaining about a volunteer's rights and responsibilities and offering guidelines for the work. I make it clear how much time is involved - some of these students have a lot of homework - and we include a criminal record declaration. Every volunteer who is accepted then receives training in visual impairment awareness."
The old people, all residents of the Royal Borough, are referred to the project by agencies such as social services or the RNIB. "But not everyone is necessarily suited to it," says Eleanor. "They must be prepared to offer something in return. It's a delicate balance, and it can be really tricky."
When it comes to the pairing ("I'm like a matchmaker, except that this is much more complicated"), she looks for common points of interest. At the same time she is aware that differences of race, class, wealth and political outlook - differences which abound in a borough such as this - can also fuel that all-important "mutual learning" process.
"I have two quite left-wing girls who suggested to this fairly right-wing woman that they bring a paper and read to her. She likes the Daily Express, and through reading that to her every week they are now able to talk to her about their different views and to see why she thinks the way she does."
Eleanor's matches sometimes verge on the bizarre - a middle-European princess and an old lady in a council flat is one of them.
She recalls how her heart sank when one woman, Dorothy Smith, told her that she loved cooking but could no longer read recipes because of her two eye conditions - and that she was keen on football but would prefer not to be visited by a young man. "Then I remembered recruiting a young Malaysian girl who is obsessed with football."
The girl, 17-year-old Annie Tonnu, who's in the sixth form at St Paul's Girls' School, now pays regular visits to the 90-year-old Miss Smith's home on a council estate off Portobello Road. "They have a fantastic time together, talking about international cuisine or watching football on television while Annie describes what's happening on the pitch."
Two girls with an interest in aviation are currently visiting a retired aero-engineer. "He's 70 and was terribly lonely," says Eleanor. "He wasn't sure about having a home-help, but he was able to accept something more fluid that didn't seem like charity to him. Now he's offering these young women the benefit of his whole life's experience and skill.
"He's come alive since he got to know them. To make such a difference to someone's life must feel like an enormous achievement to any young person. It's something they can take forward into their lives."
Back at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Antonia Lee agrees. "Students often see themselves as takers," she says. "But this is an opportunity to give to society - to be a contributor.
"You can see the increase in responsibility in those who volunteer for the scheme compared to those who don't. Maturity in this area also affects their approach to their studies."
The project currently has 81 volunteers, mostly sixth-formers but the youngest is aged 14, while the people they visit are on average 65 years their senior. "These two age groups both suffer from a lot of prejudice - from the mythic assumptions that are made about them," says Eleanor. "This, too, is something they can share."
The Intergenerational Reading Project, one of many voluntary services provided by Sixty Plus Support, receives funding from a number of sources, including the Task Force Trust for Young Volunteers, and furtherfunding is being sought. For more information, phone 0181 969 9105.