Memories – Visiting the Elderly

When I was at George Green’s School in Poplar our headmaster was Mr George C Wilks. Mr Wilks was a small stoutish man who reminded me of an owl, with his large spectacles. At that time teachers wore gowns and Mr Wilks wore the blackest gown of all, impeccably maintained and regularly walked around the building. 

He was invariably polite but strict. He could maintain discipline at a glance.

Mr Wilks was a Methodist although the assembly at which he enjoyed preaching was not identifiably of any denomination he frequently used the phrase of the need to practice religion “in your ordinary everyday lives”.

I never considered my life as ordinary or everyday, but I knew what he meant.

It must have been about 1962 that he launched an initiative under which children of the small school (then no more than 300 pupils) would visit elderly folk in pairs, just to have a cup of tea with them and talk to them for an hour a week. I never was selected for these visits, and I am not sure if I would have wanted to visit the elderly, who always seemed to me to be a little frightening. However many pupils did and would provide perhaps what the elderly need more than anything – company and a chat.

When I hear today of a care visitor having just fifteen minutes to spend looking after an elderly person it strikes me that we miss the point. The elderly of course need care and help in doing the ordinary everyday things that younger fitter and more able people take for granted. However human contact is more than being quickly nursed or fed; it requires a commitment of time and Mr Wilks persuaded many young people to provide this time, which I am sure helped both those being visited and those visiting in their own extraordinary everyday lives.

I particularly remember those who visited the elderly coming to school the next day to tell us of their experiences. They considered the person they visited as “our old lady” or “our old man”. Poplar people are possessive of each other, rightly so, even when relative strangers.

That is because we are all part of a society, in those days bound and glued together by relative poverty, not desperate starvation, but by a common experience of our part of London and how things were in it.

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