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Face to Face with the Fellows: Alex Smith

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Fighting Loneliness

Forty percent of people over the age of 65  in the UK say their TV is their main form of company. Ten percent of general doctor’s appointments in the UK are made by an older person with no condition other than loneliness. Here in the US, the statistics aren’t any better—nearly half of Americans feel alone, young adults most of all. Makes you want to hide under your pillow, right?

After Obama Fellow Alex Smith forged an unexpected but powerful friendship with an 84-year-old man in his neighborhood, he took it upon himself to fight the sobering epidemic of loneliness. He founded The Cares Family to breathe new life into intergenerational relationships in the UK and beyond.

Older people with light skin tones and warm undertones are smiling while having a conversation sournded by other people with several different skintones.

Reach out, connect, be playful with people you don’t know—they might surprise you.”

Alex Smith, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow

Alex Smith founded  The Cares Family (Opens in a new tab) to connect people living in the same community to reduce their loneliness and the gaps across social, digital, cultural, and generational divides.

ATTN: Alex Smith

Q: To start, maybe you could tell us about the inspiration behind The Cares Family?

A: Well, it all started on election day in 2010. I was a council candidate in the neighborhood where I grew up and I was out knocking on people’s doors trying to get people to come out and vote. Behind one of the doors, I met an elderly gentleman who was 84 years old. His name was Fred, and I said, “Hi Fred, how are you doing? It’s great to see you. It’s Election Day, how would you like to come out and vote?”

He said that he would love to, that he had never missed an election in his life, but that he hadn’t been out of his house for three months. The only conversations he had were with his caregiver who brought him his breakfast in the morning and his dinner at nighttime.

Since there was a wheelchair behind him, I cheekily suggested that if he was comfortable with it, I could wheel him down the road to the voting place so that he could perform the democratic duty that he’d always valued and he agreed. It was an amazing sunny day and he was speaking to people. He thought it was wonderful to be out.

That experience made me think that there must be a lot of people like Fred who don’t get out of their homes very often—older people who have a lot to give, a lot of stories to tell, a lot of contributions to make to their communities.

At the same time there are a lot of younger professionals in particular, like me, who are always on their phones commuting to work, hanging out with other people who are just like them. What can I do to bring together these two groups who often live side-by-side but hardly ever interact, and subsequently are often lonely or isolated from one another?

Alex Smith bumps into an old friend and poses for a selfie.

Q: And the name? How did you come up with ‘The Cares Family’?

A: We spent a lot of time thinking about the name for The Cares Family. North London Cares was our first branch and we came up with that name because we knew we weren’t about “service delivery” or “clients.” We felt that those kinds of words can actually leave people feeling cold and even more isolated than they were before. We wanted to get the point across that a community coming together looks out for others; older people look out for younger people and vice versa.

I’m convinced that in the early days of North London Cares, older people were coming to our activities—particularly our social clubs—because they wanted us as younger people to succeed in building this model. And we quickly learned that younger people were benefiting from those shared experiences and friendships too. So, we wanted to have a name that expressed the values of what we do for the community as a whole and that conveyed the meaning and heritage of a place, and something people can connect with and belong to.

As we expanded to different urban areas in the UK, The Cares Family emerged as a way to connect the local branches with local responsibility and local identity—feeling close to your home and to your neighbors. The name really represents that every local branch is also part of a wider family sharing resources, having economies of scale, and learning from one another equally.

A group of people stand in two lines holding hands and walking towards each other in a dance. A person in the center plays the accordian. The words "Happy BIrthday" appear in cut-out letters behind them.

Q: And how do you decide where and who you help?

A: Our work is mostly focused in urban areas, and big cities are completely amazing. They change, they move, they’re dynamic, they’re full of amazing people from all over the world who arrive for cultural and economic opportunities. But they’re often also quite anonymous, quite lonely, and quite isolating.

We do what we can to bring these two groups together so that they can both help combat one another’s loneliness. During the time that we’ve been working on this issue, evaluations have shown that 76 percent of the older people we work with feel less isolated as a result of participating in Cares Family activities.

Q: And what about the younger people? What’s the most common reaction they have to The Cares Family?

A: Younger people really appreciate the new interactions and the new friendships they’re building in their local community. Nearly all of them say they feel better and closer to their community—part of something bigger than themselves. With technology, with urban transience, and with globalization and gentrification, our cities are bustling places, but at the same time they can feel really difficult for some people who don’t have those local relationships. I think the issue of loneliness and isolation is growing, especially in our big cities, and all of the evidence says that’s the case.

Q: So what advice would you give to a younger generation that is grappling with loneliness and polarization and aren’t sure where to begin developing connections?

A: I think my advice to younger people who are seeking connections beyond the digital world is to take a step back and try not to ride the wave of social media, professional expectations, and the “fear of missing out.” You have to let that go to be able to reach out to older people in the community who have thousands of stories of love and loss, of hope and heartbreak, and of mischief and misadventure to share with you.

In my experience at The Cares Family, young people have learned so much from their older neighbors and vice versa. Often times, simple gestures like inviting an older person for tea, watching a movie together, or simply saying hello to people you normally wouldn’t is the easiest way to connect with others. When you get onto a bus, if you live in a big city, take your headphones off when you get onto that bus. Say hi to people you’ve seen in your neighborhood before. Stop and have a chat with neighbors. Do things to spend time, to invest time—by sharing something of yourself with people—rather than always trying to save time.

Q: And how about you personally? What are some of the most meaningful observations you’ve made about the young people and elderly people you work with?

A: I guess what I’d say is that people don’t want services done to them. Not everybody wants to go to an old community center and play bingo, or spend time knitting. Not everybody can afford to live in a care home. Not all care homes are vibrant places of community. Some of them are quite sad places, and a lot of older people want to live in the community and want to spend time with younger people and reconnect to their neighborhood and the people and places around them.

There are a lot of stereotypes about older people and lots of stereotypes—by the way—about younger people too. So what we try to do is connect people in places of meaning. Cities are changing so quickly and that’s leaving people feeling left out, left behind, isolated from the world around them, and polarized from other sections of society.

A man with salt-and-pepper hair stares to the right as he holds a pen. Two out-of-focus people frame him on either side.

Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Alex Smith

Q: Finally, how do you see the Obama Foundation Fellowship enhance the impact of your work?

A: The past eight years have been an amazing journey for The Cares Family. We’ve gone from a start-up to a fully fleshed-out organization, but we’ve tried to keep a youthful mentality all the while. Similar to most startups, a lot of our work has happened in an ad hoc way. But now we find ourselves at a moment of opportunity and also a moment of vulnerability. We’re growing from our original base in our original community, and in the next couple of years we’re going to have at least four Cares branches in rapidly changing cities all over the UK.

Being a part of the Obama Foundation Fellowship will hopefully help The Cares Family build on the progress we’ve made over the last several years, and it will help us expand our idea across the UK and possibly around the world. We have a lot of research to do to see whether other communities are experiencing the same conditions that leave people feeling isolated in their own rapidly changing cities, and to figure out if there’s a need and a hunger to bring our model and our lessons to the table for other big cities around the world to adopt. That’s really important to me and it’s really important to everybody in The Cares Family.

You can learn more about Alex and  The Cares Family (Opens in a new tab) and meet our other current class of Fellows  here.