A freshly-cooked jacket potato with baked beans and a slice of homemade cake are brought to the table. The kettle is on. The conversation is flowing. A group of elderly people are sitting in homely surroundings, clearly enjoying each other’s company.
This is the touching and comforting scene inside the state-of-the-art Stuart Halbert Drop-in Centre last Friday afternoon. And it typifies the mood and feel of life at this unique facility at The Alnwick Garden.
Designed to combat loneliness among the older generation, the drop-in centre has become a vital part of the community since it was officially launched last year.
The fact that 2,349 people from across Northumberland have walked through the doors in less than 12 months proves the centre’s worth.
In the words of manager Sue Simpson, it has offered some people a lifeline, making a real difference to their lives.
Open on a Thursday, Friday and Sunday, from 11am to 4pm, this , free-to-use hub offers the chance to play games, relax on the sofa, watch television, have something to eat, read a book, socialise and build friendships.
Aimed at those aged 55 and over, the majority of the users are 75-years-plus, with some in their 90s. And it is having a positive impact on those it serves, at a time when the county’s aging population is on the rise and becoming a more important issue.
Sue said: “I am so proud about what we are doing here. This centre really is unique and for some, it is providing a lifeline and I think we have transformed people’s lives. For some people, it is like having a substitute family. It gives people the chance to get together, share in conversation and enjoy things like jigsaws, chess or knit.
“It offers a form of companionship and everybody looks after everybody else. It also provides a form of respite care for some people.
“We had one member, Derek Ward, who passed away towards the end of last year. He was in his 90s and his niece said that he looked forward to coming to the drop-in centre and it actually gave him hope.”
You only have to listen to those who use the drop-in centre to realise just how important this facility is. One of the many glowing testimonies comes from Mick Walters, 73, from Amble, who has been using the centre since November.
He said: “This is a good idea. It gets people together in a friendly environment.”
Another is Jeremy Cruickshanks, 77, from Alnwick. He recently moved to the town and told the Gazette that it has helped him meet new people.
He said: “It gives me the chance to have a natter and be in the company of others.”
For 80-year-old Carrol Conroy, from Alnwick, the facility has opened new doors. She said: “It was a good decision to start coming here. It provides you with company and it is lovely to be here.
“This centre is really important. If you’re on your own, it can take an awful lot to get out of the house, but when you start going along to something like this, it really helps.”
This home-from-home facility allows people to share experiences and expertise. A talented seamstress, lace maker and craft expert, Carrol is preparing to teach some of her skills to others at the centre.
The running of the venue is made possible thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers.
The hardy team certainly go the extra mile to make the centre a welcoming environment, with many local volunteers, including Sue, Gill Ewart and cook Yvonne Dale, each clocking up hundreds of hours of service for the cause.
The £90,000 facility was funded by the Stuart Halbert Foundation, the Rank Foundation and Sir John and Lady Hall.
It was officially opened in October by Maureen Halbert, wife of the late Stuart Halbert, along with the Duchess of Northumberland, and coincided with The Garden’s 15-year anniversary.
The centre has been described as the jewel in the crown of The Alnwick Garden Trust’s Elderberries Programme, which aims to address loneliness, isolation and financial hardship among older people in the county and delivers events and chances to socialise, promoting a healthy and fulfilled quality of life.
The drop-in centre and the Elderberries scheme work closely together, with the latter delivering more than 34 sessions per month.
These include the Blooming Well Project, which provides horticultural and well-being activities for those in the early stages of dementia; tea dances; a Clinic Café which provides health-care information on the second Tuesday of each month from 2pm to 3.30pm; a walking group; and the Gentleman’s Garden initiative.
Tracy Jones, Elderberries coordinator, said: “It is growing all of the time and it is an extraordinary thing to be part of.
“We love helping the community and we constantly look at ways to keep the programme interesting and relevant.”
For more details about Elderberries, contact Tracy on 01665 511356 or visit www.alnwickgarden.com