Alley Oop – It’s All In The Name

Lena and I were all set for a spot of volunteering on Saturday morning – helping to clear litter from the Salford streets. That’s not quite how it worked out. We turned up bright and early for our warm-up coffee – but nobody else turned up. Here we are, waiting to begin …

The Meet-up

All week long I’d been banging on about the street-cleaning event. I mentioned it in our Carer Tips newsletter on Walking. I tweeted it, Facebooked it, mentioned it in meetings, told a couple of my trusted local influencers to mention it.

It wasn’t just because I wanted to help the local organiser, Joe, who always struggles to get more than a handful of people to turn out. It’s also because this is exactly the kind of meaningful, purposeful activity that I’m advocating for people with dementia and their carers. The work’s undemanding, sociable, feels worthwhile. And if we want to create dementia-friendly communities, what better way to do it than by being out there in the community, with the community, showing that we still belong and have a role to play?

They’d forecast winter for Saturday morning, and as we set out on the mile walk to McDonalds, the meeting-point, it was grey and chilly but not freezing – with no wind, it was a good day for a clean-up. At least the weather wouldn’t keep people away – unlike last time when it had poured with rain. Hopefully there’d be a few more volunteers today.

There weren’t. It was just Joe and ourselves.

We sat and waited a while, with a coffee and a muffin. Joe got a phone call and told us he had to leave – he’d be back soon. Lena and I amused ourselves taking selfies for a while – entering into the spirit of things at McD’s – but after 45 minutes we decided to call it a day.

Reflection

I hope it was nothing serious with Joe. But if the reason he didn’t come back was disappointment at the turnout, that’s completely understandable. The clean-up campaign matters so much to Joe, but nobody seems to be listening. You can’t make much of a difference to Salford streets in a couple of hours with a team of three – and one of them with advanced Alzheimers. 

Around an hour earlier than we met, around 2000 runners and 150 volunteers showed up at the 5 parkruns I counted in Manchester – there are several I didn’t count. Parkruns get the same number of people every week, and the majority of them aren’t elite runners. They go out because they get a sense of wellbeing from the exercise, because it’s a community, because it’s fun, because it’s free. Street-cleaning could be all of that too. So why can’t Joe get even ten people to join in? I’ve been thinking about it all weekend.

Part of the problem must surely be what we call it – ‘street cleaning’ – and all its associations. Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up. An athlete, a film-star, an astronaut, a scientist …. a street cleaner? ‘A what? No thanks.’ 

OK, let’s call it something else then. You can be a ‘litter-picker’. Not exactly aspirational, is it? And where’s the fun in that? 

‘Defenders of the earth’? Ah, that’s more like it. Maybe a bit over the top though.

A second problem is that although we feel good after our street-cleaning, it doesn’t feel that we’re really making much difference. Given the small number of volunteers, we don’t actually get to clean many streets, and a couple of weeks later, they look just the same as they did before. You’d hardly know we’ve been there.

It’s different with parkrun. Each time you run, you get a published time, and you can check it against your history. You can measure your own progress week by week. And those glorious personal bests – the records and the memories – are there forever. There’s a sense of permanence.

Litter studies

Our area of Salford is full of late Victorian terraced housing, street after street with small backyards separated by a narrow alleyway from the backyards of the next street. In the early 2000s the local council started funding lockable gates for the alleyways, primarily as a crime prevention measure, but also to encourage the use of the alleys as community areas. Younger children could play safely there. Groups of residents could set up shared barbecue areas. 
 
Has the scheme been successful?

Two years ago Alley #1 was used as a barbecue area. But then, in the winter months, a property developer dumped building materials and a tangle of thick bushy undergrowth into the alley. A complaint was made to the Council but no action was taken. A useful recreation area has become a useful dumping area. A few of our alleys are in this dreadful state.

Alley #2 is quite long – with about 50 houses backing onto it. Most of the housing is rented, in many cases for short periods to students, so people are regularly moving in and out. The wheelie bins left in the alley are often used to dump unsorted rubbish and some of the longer-term residents blame the newcomers. But they’re not going to fix it themselves, they say; the Council should deal with it. But when the Council’s waste contractors arrive each week, the problem just gets worse. It’s not their job to take the unsorted rubbish so they leave the bins, often crammed to overflowing, outside the alleys. Litter blows back in from the street and gradually accumulates in the weeds. This is a pretty typical alleyway in our area.

It’s late Autumn now, and you’re not seeing Alley #3 in its full glory. But for the five years we’ve lived in the area, this alley has been exceptional, beautifully maintained. With all the plants, it’s not for children playing or for barbecues, but the residents are clearly proud of their area. Walking past yesterday there was something I hadn’t seen for years – a woman with a broom out on the pavement, sweeping up all the leaves that had fallen around her front door.

A new approach to street cleaning?

Instead of trying to tackle large public areas, my suggestion would be to focus our attention on the alleys, self-contained and therefore more manageable. Unlike the main streets, they’re areas in which residents actually have a stake, so they’re more likely to care.

We’d start with the alleyways where some of us who volunteer actually live – like examples 1 and 2 above – just cleaning them up completely. Then we’d drop a note through residents’ doors, asking them whether they’d like to use the areas, now they’re clean. Would they like to see more plants, or have a barbecue area, or a space for children, or all of those? Using websites like FreeCycle, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get hold of pots, seeds, basic garden furniture etc.

My theory is that once residents have a space they’re proud of and actually start using, they’ll continue to maintain it themselves. 

The next stage will be a press and social media campaign, showing what we’ve achieved and offering the same service, on application, in other streets. The campaign needs a catchy, positive name. Alley Oop, perhaps? Definitely not Street Cleaning!

As we go, we’ll invite other people to join us in our campaign to restore a sense of civic pride in the appearance of our neighbourhood. When we have enough hands on board, then we can turn our attention to the public areas of the city. It won’t be just about cleaning. This is a beautifying project. We’ve all been charmed by ‘best-kept villages’. Now it’s time for best-kept cities.

Implications for our dementia-care project

As I mentioned at the beginning, The Care Combine is campaigning to get people with dementia and their carers involved in purposeful, meaningful community activities. Our plan is to help establish a network of activity centres known as The Bine, open during working hours 7 days a week, and free for most users.

The Bine will serve carers just as much as the people they care for, giving them the freedom to stay in full-time employment, or to pursue their interests or just to get a break during the daytime hours.

Read Introducing The Bine to find out exactly how it’s going to work – changing the whole way we look at dementia care.

 In Salford, street-cleaning is a perfect example of one of our purposeful community activities. In other places, where litter is less of a problem, it may not be such a great idea. But there are plenty of other opportunities for Bine members to engage in voluntary community-serving activities – we’ve published a number of them in Typical Dementia Activities At The Bine – and we’re always looking for more suggestions from our readers. 

What have I learnt from Saturday’s experience? Well, first it’s made me think about the types of activities we should be offering. One of our objectives is to change the public perception of dementia – to get people to understand that it’s not an end-of-life illness but a change-of-life condition. Ideally then, we need to look for opportunities to be visible, to interface directly with people in the community, and to do things where others will see and feel a direct benefit (like the Alley Oop idea).

But second, we need to think about how we describe the Bine when we’re trying to persuade people to join, whether as members or volunteers. If ‘street-cleaning’ has negative associations, then ‘dementia’ is about a hundred times worse.

I remember how it was when Lena was first diagnosed, and a support worker told us about the numerous dementia groups we could attend here in Salford, handing us a clutch of leaflets. Neither Lena or I wanted anything to do with them. What did dementia have to do with us? It was an old people’s illness, and we weren’t old. We knew, without needing to go, what these ‘dementia cafes’ were. Tea and sympathy probably. It wasn’t for us – that wasn’t the sort of people we were. We binned the leaflets.

A year or two later we discovered that our prejudices had been wrong. Some of the groups weren’t our cup of tea, but there was great work going on in others. But that word ‘dementia’ had kept us away. I’m sure others feel the same as we did – and perhaps it explains why, when there are an estimated 1500 Salford residents living at home with dementia, fewer than 10% make use of the existing opportunities.

Now suppose that support worker had told us instead about a community heroes initiative – a group of people who meet up at a club every day to plan and participate in activities that benefit the neighbourhood? Helping people who couldn’t get out of the house; running a reading-group for pre-school children; collecting / making / distributing warm clothing for the homeless; beautifying the alleyways. 

And then, what if they’d told us everyone was welcome to join, young and old, and a number of other people with dementia had found it a great way to stay involved with the community? Finally, what if they’d pointed us to a YouTube video, showing us community hero success stories – from their base at The Bine?

Would that have persuaded us to join? Alley oop! – I think it might have. 

Related story:

We have an army of dementia carers all fighting their battles alone. That's no way to win a war.

Alan Miles

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