”Manchester’s silent army?”

I look after my Dad. He’s 87 and calls me his PA! He has limited vision and his hearing isn’t great. Easy to be with, he likes music, laughing and trips to seaside. He’s very independent but can’t do everything without some help and when he’s ill or bored it isn’t easy.About a year ago I was asked to say something about myself. Without thinking “I’m a member of Manchester’s silent army” popped out of my mouth. I think I meant to say “I’m a carer, one of many and we just quietly get on with it”.

Since then I’ve joined the Manchester Carers Forum.

The forum facilitates group meetings, day trips, provides information, runs a dementia support service, training workshops, even has a weekly local radio slot. There are several groups across Manchester. The North group is organised by Miriam and Christine and meets monthly at Cheetham Hill Medical Centre.

“We’re not saying that we can change someone’s circumstances” Miriam tells me “but we can bring carers together so that they can share their experiences with each other. Those that attend hold a wealth of knowledge and lived experience which is so valuable.  People leave the group feeling they’ve had a break for a couple of hours. They’ve relaxed, let off some steam or maybe come away with some tips, and are better able to cope with life’s challenges until the next meeting.”

Today we’re helping carer George celebrate his 80th birthday by tucking into a box of wonderful cupcakes. While they’re chomping away I ask the group what they thought about the forum.“Tell me a bit about yourselves and why you come here?”

I thought they might be shy – boy was I wrong! Here’s some of what they said:

Just love meeting here. I get a sense of relief. Would be quite happy if it was once a week never mind once a month”

It recharges your batteries and I go home feeling energised”

Everyone’s in exactly the same position as you and it’s a break from the pressure of looking after someone for a few hours”

Discussing issues with the group gives me confidence to challenge the authorities rather than just accept something”

It’s the information that others share and knowing you’re not alone”

While I’m here, for a brief period someone looks after me – even being served a cup of tea and a cake or biscuit is a welcome feeling”

It makes me feel good and I’ve made some great friends”

If something can be changed we have more chance when we come together in a larger group than we would have as individuals”

“I  come here because I like cakes! They’re my commission for sharing what I know”Birthday boy George the ‘cup-cake king’

They talked about caring for wives, husbands, partners, children and siblings, about how important it was that their ‘cared for’ had quality of life. They raised issues about local council services, housing, disjointed health care, benefits etc. Told astonishing, even shocking stories. Some had fought fierce battles and not always won.

Thinking back to my statement a year ago made me smile – a small army they might be but they’re far from silent!

They were clear about role played by the Manchester Carers Forum and the invaluable support they receive.  If you want to find out more about the work they do in your area visit, their website.  You can follow them on Facebook or e-mail them at info@manchestercarersforum.org.

“It’s about empowerment and promoting social inclusion”

The Widows Empowerment Trust (WET) were in my local Morrisons a week or two ago offering to pack my bag in exchange for a small donation. WET, I discovered, is a newly formed charity offering support primarily to widows and widowers.

Their founder, Oyovwe Kigho, was ‘hands on’ so I arranged to meet her and find out more. “It’s about empowerment and promoting social inclusion” she tells me.“What does that mean and what led you to set up the charity?” I ask.

“I have a few friends and family that are bereaved and I was aware of the isolation, the loneliness in them. They didn’t want to mix with other people or get engaged in the community. After a loss fewer people would visit, or phone them and they struggled, became depressed.

I felt real empathy and compassion for them. So I set the charity up to support widows in that situation who were in need.”

The support is provided in a number of ways. Sometimes it’s out in the community as part of a befriending service, a couple of hours chatting, walking, shopping. They arrange trips and meals out to encourage widows to socialise and run a couple of support sessions locally.“On Tuesday’s we run a craft based workshop with activities such as sewing, knitting or crocheting. It’s an opportunity to meet other widows and socialise.

Also, on Thursdays we organise a workshop for people who are suffering from dementia. We do arts and crafts like painting alongside dancing, playing music, singing. It’s held at the Each Step Care Home and around 10 to 20 people attend, some are residents and others live nearby. It’s a lovely group and really enjoyable.”

I decided to go along and see for myself. Each Step Care Home is a modern, bright, well lit building in Blackley, cheerful and clean with a garden and cafe.

I’m taken through to a lounge area to see a small group sat around a long table doing crafts. Gradually more people arrive. There’s music and karaoke compliments of Richard who, along with Oyovwe, encourages everyone along and there are plenty of volunteers to join in the singing and dancing.As promised the group were lovely and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Running the charity is not without its challenges. Raising funds is a time consuming necessity and committed volunteers are much needed for roles such as office admin, befriending, PR, fundraising and more. Oyovwe also has her own young family to look after and I truly admire her.

“You don’t have to be a widow to see the pain that bereavement causes. I put myself in their shoes, understand how they feel. It’s what gives me that push, that drive.

I can see the impact of what we are doing. Some have really improved in their confidence.

It’s helped them to meet other widows and I hope it’s raised awareness amongst the community and families too.”

If someone offers to pack your bag at the supermarket please let them and, if you can, make a donation to whichever cause they are collecting for. It’s a fair exchange.

More about the trust and full details of the volunteer opportunities can be found on the Widows Empowerment Trust website and Facebook page.

Or contact Oyovwe on 07472 064322  /  email: info@widowsempowment.com

“It’s the stretch zone where learning takes place”

I’m at the Simpson Memorial Hall, Moston to observe a couple of sessions of the LAB Project run by Chris Higham and Sarah Jones of the Proper Job Theatre Company. I’ve done my homework and this course would suit me down to the ground.

People start to arrive. It’s a small group of mixed nationalities and, for most of them, English is their second language. Like me they’re a bit nervous.

“Would you mind if I just join in?” I ask Chris. “Of course, stay as long as you like.” So, I do. The whole two weeks in fact.

First, the house rules, toilets, break times, etc., then Chris says “Try to take part in as much as you can. We ‘challenge by choice’ so if there’s anything you feel you can’t or don’t want to do, you don’t have to.” Then, it’s straight into an ice-breaker game.There‘s a daily workbook to fill in but otherwise there are no hand-outs, presentations, desks or lectures. Over the next few days we played various activities, listened, talked, signalled and even sang (and I don’t sing as a rule). We learned about each other, our similarities and differences, the importance of body language, feedback and learning styles. Also, about being in our comfort zone, getting into our stretch zone, avoiding panic… and, along the way, we all became friends.

Chris and Sarah were joined by a volunteer, Billie, who’d completed the course last year. They were incredibly patient and how they transformed a few shy strangers into a troupe of budding thespians in such a short time was simply impressive.As the school drama workshop loomed closer. Sarah outlined each role. “Who wants to be first to volunteer?” She glanced at us and we all glanced at each other, tight-lipped.

“Feeling nervous is normal, it’s ok.” Chris said. “It’s a natural emotional response but not a negative one. Learning how to manage nerves is what’s important. Think of that stretch zone and give it a go. If you don’t like it you can change your mind.”

“We’ll run through it without any scripts first. I’ll talk each of you through your part. Billie and I’ll do the actions, you watch and then you copy.” said Sarah. “Get the story into your head first. Learning any lines will come easier.” One by one the parts were filled.I have to skip a day and don’t join them again until we go to the school and perform the drama workshop. They told me later how nervous they’d felt beforehand but how elated they were afterwards. Their performance blew me away. The children loved it and so did the teachers.The project didn’t end with just a certificate, a gift for attending and a round of applause like most other courses. The LAB project concludes with a progression session. Various organisations are invited to meet the group and help them take the next step towards employment. They’re given information, signed up for further courses, training, work placements or voluntary work – whatever they ‘chose’ to do.What can I say? Was it the best course I’d ever been on? Yes – and I’ve been on lots. Do I still get nervous? Yes – but less often and I can deal with it. Am I more confident? Yes – and I’m so grateful.

For contact details and to find out more visit the LAB website. There’s video on there – it’s quite inspirational.