”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

Knit and Natter

What a super name. People smile as I walk in and make a space at a large table as if they’ve known me for years. Over the next hour or so, more arrive and are treated to the same welcoming response. It’s Tuesday and the group gathers every week at the Wellbeing Centre on Church Lane Harpurhey.

Everyone settles down, the hum of chatter gets louder against the sound of clicking needles and it makes me smile. It’s oddly relaxing.

Quietly, I admit I can’t knit.

“Don’t be put off. Christine couldn’t so we showed her and she’s brilliant. Hazel’s made her own blanket. You should see it. It’s fabulous.” I notice that not everyone is knitting anyway, so I don’t feel like the odd one out.

“Where do you get all the wool from? It’s expensive isn’t it?”

“Local people or friends and family donate it so there’s plenty to go at” explains Brenda who’s stepped in to run the group today. “The centre makes use of anything it can. As well as ‘Knit and Natter’ there are several craft groups during the week who can turn quite ordinary things into something really special.”

Around us there’s a constant buzz and lots of conversations going on all at the same time.

You can join in any discussion if you have the urge or just sit and listen.

Last weekend’s craft fayre is a hot topic today. It was an opportunity for the various groups to showcase their efforts to the public and offer them for sale. The tombola stall made the most money and they discuss how to advertise it better next time. The lady next to me, Hazel, had taken photos of the day and scrolls through pictures on her iPad of knitted clothes, home-made cards, candle holders, painted bottles, all sorts. They are proud of their work and rightly so.

“I’m a digital champion when I’m not here” Hazel says. “I show people in the community, the older generation in particular, how to use technology, such as iPads and laptops. Basics, like how to use search engines, buy things online, listen to music, download books, that sort of thing.” My jaw drops a little. I’d no idea what a ‘digital champion’ was but how brilliant.

“Why did you join the group?” I ask Rachel who’s sitting further along.

“This is what I call ‘me time’. It’s for no-one else just me. I’m a carer for two family members and also work in the evenings.” she explains. “I just love the place and everyone treats you as if you’ve been coming for years. I’ve knitted all sorts too. I’m not used to socialising and was nervous at first so my niece, Sarah, came with me.”

Sarah’s a busy mum. “Bringing my aunt here has made me realise that I wasn’t taking time out for myself either. It’s important, otherwise you just eat, sleep and repeat. I like it here so much I’ve decided to start a cookery class. I used to run a cafe and cooking’s my thing. Can’t wait to get going”.

They both manage to carry on knitting without looking and smile throughout.

What an excellent couple of hours. I learnt something new. Didn’t knit a stitch. No-one was bothered. It was a chance to relax, have a natter and put the daily routine to one side for a while.