Age of enlightenment;Third age

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
At a time of life when many people simply give up on the future, residents of a home in south London are developing new skills and making a fresh start. Gerald Haigh visits Nightingale, where they take lifelong learning seriously.

SayJ"oldJpeoples' home", and a sad pictureJcomesJto mind of a colourless room,JlinedJwithJchairs,JeachJoneJtakenJby someone who sits staring ahead. It's like a waiting room where people bide their time in preparation for the grimmest of appointments.

This image of old people condemned to a long wait while they die of boredom, is the opposite of what visitors will find at Nightingale, a south London residential home for elderly Jewish people. Here, education is at the heart of life. With almost 400 residents, it is the largest old people's home in Europe, and lively minds are kept buzzing with classes of all description.

Founded almost 160 years ago, it has been constantly updated and extended - the most recent refurbishment cost pound;5million. Far from being any sort of terminus, Nightingale is a place for finding fresh interests and achieving long-held cultural ambitions.

Always wanted to paint? Speak French? Sing in a choir? Go backstage at a West End theatre? Join a book group run by Edwina Currie? You never had time before, but you can do it here. At Nightingale, the phrase "lifelong education" has real and revelatory meaning.

The home has its own art and craft department, with a marvellous painting studio, staffed by four full-time and six part-timers who cover courses which include painting, drawing, ceramic, basketry, screen printing, embroidery, as well as cooking and computer studies.

"People find a new beginning here," says Linda Samson who heads the department. "They rediscover skills that have lain dormant and they find new ones."

Her deputy, Lone Reddin agrees. Like Linda Samson she came to her post from adult education. "Even if people are a bit older, they can certainly learn new things," she says.

Disabled resident Monty Leigh, who made furniture all his working life, is demonstrating this point by making decorative ceramic tiles for a mural in the well-equipped arts and crafts centre. "I've never done pottery in my life," he says. "Many people who come here have never done it. They have a go and find they have a penchant for it."

Monty, though, is less convinced of the quality of his work than his tutors and visitors. "I'm not a good potter," he says. "I wouldn't like Brian Sewell to come here - I think he'd have a heart attack."

In fact, of course, what would impress Sewell the art critic, and captivates every visitor, is the full-hearted optimism of the art work - typical of all that goes on at Nightingale. It's typical too that the work travels well - in November the residents have an exhibition at the Wandsworth Arts Festival. One of the artists featured is the late Flora Leipman, who had the most extraordinary life, being born in Glasgow, moving to Leningrad, enduring Stalin's purges and finally ending up in Nightingale.

Another resident, Rachel Dranse, is working on a practised painting of a still life group based on a lady's decorated shoe. Mrs Dranse's past occupation as a milliner is reflected in her neatness and precision. "I designed the better hats for Ascot and events like that," she explains, "and I've always wanted to paint." Mrs Dranse has strong views about ageing, especially when asked about her own age. "Look," she says, quietly but firmly, "That's a woman's best-kept secret. Just say I've been retired for some time. You can be jolly old at 40. It's a matter of your mind."

Beyond the art rooms lies a range of other educational activities, in a leisure department of three full-timers headed by Sheila Shear. She organises a programme of daily events, with groups for French conversation, keep-fit, lip-reading, and discussion and a reminiscence group led by a volunteer from outside. Each Thursday a tutor comes from the Spiro Institute (a Jewish adult education foundation) to take classes on aspects of Judaism. A programme of speakers includes many household names, such as Uri Geller and Vidal Sassoon.

The centre has links with local schools, too - holding a quiz with one in Spring, and planning an intergenerational end of millennium concert with another in December. In March, to mark the beginning of Passover, a class of children from a primary school joined in a Seder meal - a Jewish religious celebration. The same month also saw a concert by pupils from the Yehudi Menuhin school of music, in Surrey. (Menuhin once came to tea.) Mrs Shear and the residents are keen to explain about their book club run by ex-MP and author Edwina Currie, who lives nearby. Mrs Shear specialises, it seems, in producing celebrity authors. "We had Ruth Rendell last week, and Beryl Bainbridge is coming soon. Our biggest problem," Mrs Shear says, "is when we get somebody who is bright and wanting to learn, but who, having lived alone, has to get used to being with people again, and doing things together.

"We had a man of 86 here," Mrs Shear says, "a former cabby. When I put up a notice for a visit to the ballet, he said he would go - he'd taken hundreds of people there but never been inside. When the curtain went up he squeezed my arm with excitement and said 'It's beautiful.' Now, that to me is education."

Mrs Shear is a passionate evangelist for lifelong learning, believing that what you learn at school is nothing compared with what comes later. "Everything is educational," she says. "It never ends. It's a new life, new opportunities." The facilities include an air-conditioned concert hall seating 100. Then there's a "reminiscence room" furnished as a Thirties sitting room, a relaxation room, a hairdressing salon, a synagogue...

Resident Yvonne Sieve wishes such facilities were commonplace. A pre-war London School of Economics student, and post-war polytechnic lecturer, Mrs Sieve was for 13 years a member of the old Greater London Council, where she had an interest in people with low incomes. Now she lives in Rayne House, the sheltered housing section of Nightingale. She is involved in most activities - French, the book club, discussion groups.

"This is a wonderful place," she says, "There are bags of opportunities for people to do things. Everyone deserves this standard of care, but few get it."

Today's politicians, she says, lack commitment. "It's a pity that women in Parliament are not campaigning more to see that women in old age are cared for with dignity."

Most Nightingale residents are in their mid to late-80s and bring some local authority funding with them. This, however, falls far short of the costs of their care. Nightingale director Leon Smith says: "We reckon we have to raise about 25 per cent of our running costs, and the whole cost of any capital projects, such as our recent refurbishment."

Everywhere in Nightingale, visitors are reminded of the generosity of donors and sponsors. The art and craft centre is named after businessman David Clore, the theatre was equipped by a single donor, and there is much evidence of many smaller bequests. "None of it would be possible," says Leon Smith, "without the generosity of the Jewish community."

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