On Monday 4th September 2017 at 4.10pm, I nervously read a talk I had (thankfully) pre-prepared, to a room full of people at the Odeon Oldham. Yes it was terrifying and I felt myself hyperventilating moments before, but it was also exhilarating and amazing at the same time. It was a proud moment for the scheme in which we got to share what we are all about and tell our story. If you weren’t there and fancy reading the talk then here it is for your perusal:
Talk for Your Oldham Festival
Hello my name is Alex Hoskyn and I am from The Chatty Café Scheme.
Although I am going to start off on a depressing note, I will end on a high so stick with it.
I want you to think about your day so far…. how many times have you spoken to another person? Have you responded to any emails, answered your phone, woken up next to someone? Had work related conversation or general chit chat?
Now, I want you to fast forward to what could be one day in your future… you wake up alone, spend the day alone and go to bed alone, you don’t need to check your emails because no one will have contacted you, your phone doesn’t vibrate or beep and the most interaction you have with another person is the server in your local café where you go to get out of the house.
You could have gone from being a busy, run of your feet working person with purpose; meetings to chair, emails to send, friends, family and colleagues around you, to simply a person with what you feel is very little purpose.
The point I am trying to make is that our lives can and likely will change for many reasons; retirement, bereavement, illness, becoming a full time carer, having children, children leaving home, old age, disability and so on.
Loneliness and social isolation do not discriminate.
In March this year, I set up The Chatty Café Scheme because I found myself feeling incredibly lonely and desperately craving human interaction. Now I am not socially isolated, I have a partner, friends and family yet when my son Henry was around four months old I was spending what felt like very long days not talking to another adult. Yes I could have been sat with other mums discussing sleep deprivation but for me, one of those groups a week was enough and I didn’t always want to go to my mums or friends’ houses all day. So, I found myself visiting cafes… lots of cafes, big ones, small ones, community ones, ones where a cup of tea is £3 and others where its 50p. And me and Henry would sit there, me feeling incredibly blessed whilst also secretly wishing I was at work until one day I was feeling particularly fed up; I’d walked round the town centre, been to a couple of cafes, smiled at people, taken Henry to a play group in the library and yet had not a single bit of conversation with another adult. My final tea break/café stop for the day was the café in Sainsburys, Oldham .. just down the road from here. I looked around and saw an elderly lady sat alone whose body language and facial expressions screamed loneliness. At another table was a young man with additional needs and his carer who also both presented as fed up and sick of talking to just each other.
I started to think about the positive impact we could have had on each other, if we were sat together. It was then and there that I thought about the concept of a Chatter & Natter table, where customers could sit if they were happy to talk to other customers.
I wasn’t looking for more friends or anything lasting, all I was craving was simple human interaction while I drank my cup of tea so that is what I have tried to do. “Creating the right conditions for tackling loneliness”.
The Chatty Café Scheme encourages cafes and other social settings to host a Chatter & Natter table for as little as an hour a week or all the time.
Cafes receive a plastic A4 table sign like this which they simply put on a table of their choice on the designated day and time they have chosen. They also receive posters (and door stickers which are coming soon!) I then list it on the website and promote it for them.
It literally is that simple.
I am doing this in my spare time around working three days a week as a Social Worker and being a mum, but I am pleased to say that so far there are 20 in Oldham, 9 in Rochdale, 11 in Tameside and 7 in other parts of the UK with more cafes set to join.
We have established links with Costa Community, the Jo Cox Loneliness Campaign, Age UK, Ambition for Ageing and MIND.
We are a not for profit scheme and all I ask is that the cafes give a one off £5 donation which covers the cost of the sign and publicity and goes towards the website. (£10 if I can’t deliver it and postage is required)
So, you may be thinking well is it working? Are people sitting at the tables and the answer is yes. Not in all places and not always in great droves however people are starting to take notice and are giving it a go.
A big thing for me is that this doesn’t get caught up in the need to constantly evaluate it and provide evidence that it’s working. I think that Chatter & Natter tables need to be given the time to just be present in places, to give people time to get their heads around the idea and to give people the time to build up the courage to try sitting at one. When I started, I estimated it may take a venue 6 months to a year of consistently putting the sign out before anyone sat at it and I likened it to the information leaflets you see in a doctors surgery; you might stare at the leaflet display on every visit, but it might not be until the seventh visit that you actually pick one up. I thought it would be a real slow burner.
In actual fact many tables are being sat at and I have had 12 people contact me wanting to volunteer to sit at a table to encourage others to join them.
I have had calls from elderly people who saw me in the local paper asking me where the tables are located, I have had numerous organisations contact me asking if they can utilize a Chatter & Natter table for their service as it is a great platform to provide advice in an informal manner.
My dream is that one day we will see Chatter & Natter tables in schools, colleges, Universities, places of work, hospital cafes and many more venues so that it becomes a recognizable brand that people associate with somewhere you can go to chat.
As you know, Oldham is a co-operative borough which is about everybody doing their bit and everybody benefitting. This scheme fits in perfectly with this ethos; as a town we can encourage venues to host a Chatter & Natter table and think outside the box with it. It’s about getting our residents familiar with the concept and as a Council you have the ability to legitimize it, which does make a difference. It is very important to me that the scheme is intergenerational and attractive to people from all walks of life. I love the idea of professionals having a coffee with a young person, an Asian male sat drinking his tea with an older white female. A person caring for their elderly parent who has dementia sat with a mother and baby. To me a Chatter & Natter table is a way to encourage cohesion, break barriers and give people a voice.
Although the main aims of the scheme are to reduce loneliness and get people talking I have been careful to not use the word lonely in the publicity because I feel it will put people off. It takes courage to say you are lonely and it is a label that many people are afraid to wear. Instead I have created something positive so the fact it could reduce loneliness is subtle and actually a by-product of sitting with other people.
As a country, we know that loneliness has a major detrimental impact on our nation’s health and wellbeing and that it is a serious condition which can affect a person’s mental and physical health. There is also very strong evidence that loneliness can increase the pressure on a wide range of Council and health services. It is associated with higher blood pressure, depression and leads to higher rates of mortality comparable to those associated with smoking and alcohol consumption. It is also linked to a higher incidence of dementia with one study reporting a doubled risk of Alzheimer’s in lonely people compared with those who were not lonely.
You get the jist, the more strategies we can put in place to reduce loneliness the better.
Finally, there are not going to be many opportunities for an audience such as this, so I am going to take the opportunity to ask you to support the scheme. Do you know of a café or venue that might try a Chatter & Natter table? Do you have any contacts that might prove invaluable to me? Do you have a lot of followers on social media or the platform to tell people about where Chatter & Natter tables are located? Are you interested in co-working? It will all help me hugely to trial this new method of reducing loneliness.
I think it is unbelievably exciting to think that Oldham, my hometown could be at the forefront of something new; bringing all ages together so we can create not just an ‘age friendly community’ but an ALL AGES friendly community.