The 'I' in team

by Hattie Lambrou

Since setting up Home Cooks Project a year and a half ago, as a bit of an experiment to see if the idea of matching keen cooks with elderly people who were a bit lonely would work, its been ticking over quite nicely. Its fun matching cooks and diners; I still get excited when I look up the address of a new diner only to see there's a volunteer cook on the same road, waiting patiently to be matched. Its also been challenging. Forcing myself to do things I previously shied away from, like standing up in front of a room full of people to talk - which still makes me feel slightly sick and I’ll never be a confident public speaker - but at least I know now its highly unlikely anyone will ever laugh at me. Ok, it’s possible. But I’m thicker-skinned than I used to be too!

However, there’s only so much I can do on my own and I’m starting to see how what I do could be divided up into different roles - which makes me imagine (dare I say it) a team! (I must add at this point that something else I’ve never done is manage anybody, so it definitely wouldn't be that sort of team.)

For example, one person could have a sort of outreach role, going out into the community to help promote the scheme to older people, at information days, fairs and by dropping into sheltered housing schemes. Somebody else could have the job of signing up diners - who all need meeting in person before they can join. And as much as I love the actual matching-up bit, I think I could let it go if it meant having somebody to chat to about some minor, work-related dilemma, a luxury not usually afforded to those who work alone. 

In short, if you’d like a part in running the scheme - and lets face it, help ensure Home Cooks Project continues and grows, because its people that make a project succeed - please get in touch.

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Keeping it real

(and the power of face-to-face chat)

London can feel like a pretty unfriendly place sometimes, even more so since actual conversations are being replaced by social media (debatable I know). Either way I always make a point of smiling and saying hello when I pass people I don’t know on my road, particularly elderly people who I’m guessing don’t get their social fix from a smartphone.

Recently I’ve become quite adept at striking up actual conversations with them. It helps that I’ve got something practical to offer now, if I can possibly manage to steer the conversation on to the subject of FOOD.

Which is why I regularly find myself ditching the online Sainsbury’s shop in favour of a trip to Lidl. Not only is the old lady pushing her trolly down the aisle presumably already thinking about food, but being indoors and having something to hold on to usually means she’s quite happy to stop for a minute or two.  I always keep a few flyers in my bag in case I spot a potential diner when out and about.

 And Tesco sometimes...

And Tesco sometimes...

A simple, ‘ooh they look really good’, at the tangerines being prodded for firmness can be enough of a conversation starter.  Or, if they’re looking at something that needs cooking I might ask them what they'd do with it. (This tactic works particularly well with meat I find, despite the fact I’m not actually in the slightest bit interested, as I rarely cook it. I’ve learned all about how not to overcook a pork chop and even enthusiastically put some in my trolly before, only to put them back on the shelf later when the person isn’t looking.)  Then usually, all it takes is to ask whether he/she enjoys cooking and I’ve got my chance to suggest they might like a meal brought round by a neighbour occasionally.

The same topic-steering conversational advantages apply in traditional restaurants and caffs. Not that they’re easy to find these days mind, even in Streatham where the tide of industrial-chic with its exposed brick walls, distressed crate tables and mismatched, vintage chairs has definitely reached. Having said this, the new Blackbird bakery on the high road is bright, welcoming and refreshingly full of a nice mix of all kinds of people.

Older people often really want to talk to somebody, so rather than small talk, these impromptu conversations can be meaningful, heartfelt, interesting - and funny!   Running errands on Streatham High Road may take twice as long nowadays, but I’ve been known to come home feeling strangely elated, and usually more connected to my community.

 

 Alam was a nice man.

Alam was a nice man.

The project is going well; already over 100 cooks have signed up. And before I blame social media for EVERYTHING that is wrong with our society I should point out that without Facebook, only a fraction of these would have come forward. But as far as the diners are concerned, smiley emojis are meaningless. A real, human face is much more effective in persuading them to take part. And other already-established, local organisations are starting to refer since I've been meeting with them too - in case anyone is starting to worry I spend all my spare time stalking old folk in supermarkets...

Anyway, next time you realise you’ve run out of milk, STEP AWAY FROM THE LAPTOP.  If you’ve got time, get yourself down to an actual shop, talk to people and you might thank me for it when your mood is lifted too. Even better, if you’re up for a spot of sleuth supermarket shopping, get in touch and I’ll pop some some flyers in the post.

 

92 (going on 52)

by Hattie Lambrou

This is Jack, thirty-five years ago, doing one of the things he loved most; cooking.

He produced this photo for me after the first time we met, and I'd told him about the community cooking project I was starting up. Perhaps he wanted me (and Ania, his neighbour and occasional cook) to know that before age-related health problems came along, he was passionate about food too. Or maybe the image in the photograph is the man he felt he still was, deep down. Either way, it was lovely to see what he used to look like. 

Sadly, Jack died last month, aged 92.  As an old man his hair was wispy white, his skin pale and translucent and he had a stoop not dissimilar to the one in this photo.  But despite appearances, the 92 year-old Jack was, by all accounts, almost as switched-on mentally and as determined as he was in his fifties.  Right up until the end, he continued to love life. He shared his stories, good humour and love of food with anyone lucky enough to know him.

But I’ve also been meeting elderly people who've virtually given up trying to enjoy life, because they think so many of the things they used to do aren’t possible anymore. They can't read because their eyesight is so bad, they can't go out for a walk on their own because they're too frail, they can't garden anymore because they can't get down to the ground. Food is surely something everybody enjoys; but when you're too frail to stand in the kitchen for long or can't get to the shops to buy fresh ingredients, it can mean the choice between a ready meal from the freezer or tin of soup - night after night.

We can help older people enjoy some of life’s little pleasures, or even rediscover old passions.

Ania helped Jack to enjoy food again. Although as she said herself, it wasn’t so much the dishes she took over to him that were important, but the time they spent together and the brilliant conversations they had. I know she got an enormous amount from her brief friendship with him.

Incidentally, Ania didn’t need me to introduce her to Jack. I might have encouraged her a bit, but in the end she did it the old-fashioned way of simply knocking on his door, Tupperware in hand.