The Age of No Retirement have been lucky to get a deep, and sneak peak in to the inspiring brain of Alex Smith from North/South London Cares, a community network of young professionals and older neighbours hanging out and helping one another.

Can you tell our readers a bit about who you are?

I run North London Cares and South London Cares – two community networks of young professionals and older neighbours hanging out and helping one another in our rapidly changing city.
We do this because London is a place of social extremes. It's one of the most exciting, dynamic places in the world – a hotbed of innovation and change – but it can also be anonymous, lonely and isolating. In a city where community can be sacrificed for commerce, many older people now live alone. They have deep roots, but too few connections. Meanwhile, many young professionals race around town with their iPhone headphones on and can have hundreds of connections but no roots in their communities. That disconnect between parallel worlds wastes human potential, entrenches isolation and loneliness, perpetuates division across social, generational, cultural and attitudinal lines, and is corrosive for our society. We're trying to reduce those gaps between people, and to help younger and older neighbours to all feel part of our rapidly changing city, rather than left behind by it.


Can you tell us a bit about your role in this project/your motivation for making it.

Seven years ago, I was a council candidate and on election day I was knocking on doors, getting people to come out and vote. Behind one of the doors I met an octogenarian man named Fred. He told me he'd love to come out and vote, but he couldn't – he hadn't been out of his house for three months, and he had no-one to help him get to the polling station. There was a wheelchair behind Fred, so I asked him whether he'd be happy for me to escort him to the voting place. He was delighted to. While we were out in the sun Fred became animated. In particular, he told me he'd love to get a haircut – it'd been three months since he'd had one. So the next day, I returned to Fred's home and wheeled him out again, this time to the local barber shop. The barber assumed Fred was my grandad, but he wasn't – I'd just met him and I was only just beginning to learn about him. While he sat in the barber's chair, Fred told me about his life. He was a singer on the cruise ships. He'd performed at the London Palladium. He, like I, loved the Rat Pack and Sinatra. But the thing that stuck with me most was that Fred created and ran the business – Escapade – that was my favourite shop growing up as a kid in Camden Town. I'd met him before: he'd sold me fancy dress and stink bombs and all the other things young kids shouldn't have. I loved my time with Fred. I learned so much. I felt re-connected to my community through my interactions with him. And Fred, too, had benefitted – he looked so smart with his new haircut, and he felt happier to be out and chatting to someone. It really struck me that young professionals and older people living in London share geography, but they also share so much more – and I wanted to create a mechanism to bring those two groups living side-by-side but too infrequently interacting together for the benefit of the whole community.

Has this project changed how you view age?

"I'm approaching middle age with grey hair and a baby face. I walk at running pace but my knee is always in pain. I'm high energy but constantly exhausted. But none of those things define me."

Alex Smith.

All images by North London Cares and South London Cares.

I don't like the expression "age is just a number". Age matters – and it's so much more than a number. Age is deeply consequential. If you're born in the twenties, that impacts you – you may have fought in a war or lost family in the Blitz. If you were a teenager in the sixties, you had a very particular coming of age that shaped your worldview. And if you were born into ubiquitous technology, from the nineties onwards, that also shapes your world, how you feel, the opportunities and challenges you have. But rather than these differences being a dividing factor, I see difference as a unifier – an opportunity for new experiences and to learn from one another, to share humour and personality and to take pause from a society which has become too transactional and refocus on the richness of relationships. That's what North London Cares and South London Cares try to do – to bring different people with different views and different life experiences together to tackle isolation from community and from one another.

Do you think how old you are today, is relevant to how you think about yourself and why?

I think the age you're born in and grow up in is more relevant than the age you are at any given moment. Our personalities are shaped at an early age. We become kind, or funny, or adventurous – or mean, or selfish – depending on the environment, atmosphere and encouragement that set or stretch our boundaries. I know 94-year olds that are infinitely more adventurous and open-minded than some of my friends of a similar age to me (I'm 34). I know some young people who are settled and slow, and I know some 100-year olds who strive for everything in this world. So while I believe that age is a factor in how people see themselves, I also know that personality is what matters most – and the spirit people have and how they apply it is more important than anything and undefined by age.

Do you think how old you are today, changes how people think about you and why?

"The point is to be yourself, in the moment, regardless of your age. That makes it OK for 17 year olds to talk about death and taxes and equally for 95 year olds to go running."

Alex Smith.

I'm approaching middle age with grey hair and a baby face. I walk at running pace but my knee is always in pain. I'm high energy but constantly exhausted. But none of those things define me. People who worry about fitting into society's expectations or stereotypes – you should own a property, you should get married, you should be judged on who your partner is – or who worry what other people think about them fall into a trap which ultimately perpetuates stereotypes. The point is to be yourself, in the moment, regardless of your age. That makes it OK for 17 year olds to talk about death and taxes and equally for 95 year olds to go running.

Is there a difference between people who know you and people who you have just met? Could you give us an example?

Closeness depends on the depth of the bond and experience you've had and how open you are with people. If you share something powerful – love or loss, hope or heartbreak – you can relate deeply with others. Sometimes that can happen very quickly; other times it can take years.
Sometimes there's a gloss to a new interaction which can be initially alluring or exciting but there's a thicker matt to longer term relationships which can lead to a deeper understanding. The environment in which the relationship develops matters too.The people I feel closest to are the five or ten mates I went to school with. We've grown up together, done everything together, and now we just accept and love one another as much because of as in spite of our strengths and weaknesses. I don't see those mates as much as I used to, but I feel them with me every day. Meeting new people, having people around you who offer new ideas and experiences and perspectives is really important and many people thrive on those interactions. For my, I feel authenticity and unspoken bonds matter even more – and that's what we try to achieve through North London Cares and South London Cares.

"I know 94-year olds that are infinitely more adventurous and open-minded than some of my friends of a similar age to me (I'm 34). I know some young people who are settled and slow, and I know some 100-year olds who strive for everything in this world. So while I believe that age is a factor in how people see themselves, I also know that personality is what matters most – and the spirit people have and how they apply it is more important than anything and undefined by age."

Alex Smith.

What is the biggest stress in your life at the moment? Does this have anything to with how old you are?

My biggest stresses are work, and as an extension of that making time for myself and my friends and family, which I'm not very good at. But the way that I live is a consequence of my personality, not my age. People at any age are extraordinarily resilient – the absolute key, though is that our mental and physical wellbeing are directly connected. We need good mental health in order to be physically strong, and vice versa. So regardless of age, if we can accept challenges and opportunities head-on and without fear, collectively and individually, I think we will be healthier, happier and more connected to one another. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges we share across all ages?

I believe our biggest challenge is disconnection in our connected age. That disconnection may be from our community (leading to loneliness or isolation), our society (leading to division), from big business, big government or big charities which have all become too faceless (leading to disengagement and disenfranchisement) or, from ourselves (leading to anxiety, confusion, depression). Pressure on people's time, expectations of who we are, digital technology, FOMO, lifestyle brinkmanship, seeking perpetual economic growth, materialism, consumerism – in our obsession with showing off, getting richer and finding efficiencies to save time, we've somehow forgotten how to spend it, how to invest it to improve our lives and our circumstances. North London Cares and South London Cares seek to meet those challenges we all share: to help people feel better connected to others, the community and themselves.

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