Drop in falls

To be frank old age scares the crap out of me; it always has done – it’s an inherent weakness in me. I guess, without getting too Freudian, it stems from the unavoidable and indiscriminate process of growing old. Observing those fortunate to retain their faculties, whilst their physicalities degenerate and equally vice versa – it all troubles me. I can’t say it’s irrational, as the source of my fear is undeniable – yet it’s still something I’m not proud to admit. However, it doesn’t stop me engaging with and helping the elderly – far from it. Take my grandmother-in-law for example; at 101 she’s a remarkable lady who, having spent over 97 years in the East End of London, can recite tales of life in such vivid detail. I never forget, and remind my children, how blessed we are to have such a tangible link with history. 


Thank goodness for those who don’t posses my weakness. And, for what it’s worth, I hold in great esteem those who devote their time to benefit the elderly; such as the staff and volunteers at the Church Street Drop-in Centre in Edgware, London. It was early afternoon when I paid a visit; a majority of the lunchtime regulars had already said their farewells – those who remained were an eclectic bunch. I struck up conversation with Bridie. A charismatic Irish lady, with an impenetrable perm and heavy with gold, who without me enquiring relayed her turbulent life story. Whilst in the corner a man methodically worked his way through the daily assortment of newspapers. No one was in hurry or ushered away by staff once they’d finished their meal. In essence that’s the charm of the centre – for as long the doors are open and the lights are on you’re welcome to stay. 


“I’ve been coming here since it first opened; the food and company is great.” The words of Larry – a former WWII RAF pilot who after retiring as a customs officer became a devotee of the centre. My quizzing of his life hesitated, whilst my mental arithmetic caught up and alerted me to the fact that he must be close to, if not over, 100. Sure enough Larry (aged 103) had retired from work before I’d even started school! He explained that the centre gave him a purpose to get up; get dressed (smartly I might add, with his Burberry plaid shirt and 70s Paisley print tie) and get out. Despite it being mid-summer he was already looking forward to his Christmas dinner – which he couldn’t praise enough. His forward thinking was admirable, despite the fact that the centre was facing impending closure. It’s likely denial was preferable to that of dwelling upon the situation that he would find himself in, once the doors closed for good after 30 years.


Until recently the Drop-in Centre was standing firm and planning social events and outings as it has done for decades. For many of the regulars it’s become their second home. Bringing respite and a chance for social interaction over a nutritious and reasonably priced meal. For some it’s the only contact they have outside the monotonous four walls of their home. Aside from cooking, staff members become impromptu social workers; aiding and supporting individuals with paperwork and appointments.


So why close a facility that’s so obviously a lifeline to many? Ostensibly it’s in the name of cutbacks; with Shepherds Bush Housing Association unable to continue funding. Or as many profess the by-product of a changing area, due to a new demographic accelerating the gentrification that’s already evident. The march of change thus far confined to the intersection of Salisbury Street – where the rapidly shrinking market is further evidence, if needed, of change.


‘Gentrification’ an overused term that was coined by Ruth Glass (sociologist) in 1964. However, the basis for the term was unwittingly established far earlier. In 1886 Charles Booth zoned London by way of coloured-coded areas indicating levels of poverty district by district, street by street. Slums were destroyed and living conditions improved; a win win situation. Little has changed, albeit nowadays the same happens in a far more covert way. When an area finds itself neighbouring to a newly gentrified district the wave of change spreads. All to often it starts with landlords and property owners being tempted by propriety values of the neighbouring area. Having sold out the new owners then, due to the inflated purchase prices, increase the rents to recoup their investment. Long term and loyal tenants then find themselves priced out of the area. New businesses and tenants move into said area, mainly because they are unable to live in the already gentrified neighbouring district due to even higher prices. They see that being the pioneers to this new ‘up and coming area’ will be a good investment. Shops, restaurants, bars and cafés open to cater for this new influx of inhabitants. The familiarities of yesteryear are gone; so locals that do remain struggle to fit in to what was once there home.


Efforts to reverse the decision were fruitless and September 30th proved to be the Drop-in-Centre’s last day. What becomes of its patrons, especially over the harsh winter months, is ripe for discussion. Progress is a good, yet it’s a shame that it has to be at the expense of the communities it disrupts.