Songs & Smiles: The music classes battling London’s loneliness epidemic

18th October 2019

Words by Louise Goulden // Photography by Anna Whitaker

Babies in care homes: an idea so simple that you wonder why the hell it hasn’t been happening forever. Then you remember we’re one of the first generations to live such independent lives away from the wider family and that actually, loneliness is kind of inevitable for a lot of people when it comes to old age.

Songs & Smiles is the first initiative from The Together Project, opening the doors of community care homes and inviting parents and babies in for music classes and conversation to bring joy and bridge the generation gap.

We caught up with its founder, Louise Goulden to find out how it came about and where it’s going next.

The Together project is such a brilliantly simple and effective idea. Is it something you always wanted to do? If not, what led you to starting up?

No, it’s a complete shift for me in a professional sense, however I’ve volunteered with charities supporting older people for many years, so that has always been a passion area for me. My background is marketing, but I’d been harbouring a growing sense for some time that I wanted more personal fulfilment in my work. When I was on maternity leave in 2017, I wanted to find a way that my baby and I could connect with older people in our community as I was aware of the enormous impact that young children can have on brightening people’s day. The idea grew, and I realised that there was a way I could tie together this personal interest with my desire to find more meaningful work – and so The Together Project was born.

Ageism and age segregation are clearly a massive part of what drives you. How can we help reverse this growing problem in our everyday lives?

In the UK we’re massively segregated by age and it’s getting worse and worse. We tend to surround ourselves with people who are similar to ourselves and that creates artificial bubbles that are damaging to everyone. Younger people are missing out on the wisdom and life experience that older people can offer, while older people can feel isolated and ‘shut away’. This leads to loneliness, ageism – from both directions – and a lack of understanding between the generations. It’s really important to me that my children are around people from different walks of life, even from a very young age, so that ageing, disability and conditions like dementia aren’t something to be scared of – older people are seen as friendly playmates instead. I think it’s crucial that this type of education starts young. My team member’s two-year-old daughter, who’s been coming to Songs & Smiles since she was tiny, pointed at a group of older ladies in the supermarket recently and said ‘Friends!’, which I thought was such a lovely testament to the impact the groups have had on her.

Personally, I make an effort to talk to older people when a situation arises – on the bus, in a queue. It can really make a difference, and I often come away having heard some interesting stories.

Songs & Smiles are the amazing music groups you run for parents, babies and care home residents all over the south. Talk us through what happens in those sessions. What does everyone take away from them?

Songs & Smiles is aimed at 0-4 year olds, their parents/guardians and older adults in care homes and sheltered housing. We call it ‘music, fun and friendship’ and you can expect to experience all in equal measure! The sessions are designed to be enriching and engaging for the youngest through to the oldest members of the group and feature instruments, action songs, colourful scarves, bubbles and time for a chat over refreshments at the end. They’re free to attend and are a wonderful, simple way to do something that’s great for your child’s development whilst also improving the wellbeing of older people. One mum, who’s a social worker, said that she loves coming because it gives her the opportunity to model positive behaviours for her child – kindness, patience, empathy and so forth. Children are incredible sponges and the experiences that they absorb in the first few years of their lives literally help shape the neural pathways in their brains. And many parents have said how the groups have helped them overcome their own isolation, or relieved symptoms of post-natal depression by giving them a feeling of being part of something so worthwhile.

There must be a very emotional output from them too. Is it challenging to be so constantly aware of the fragility of life?

To be honest, the most overwhelming feeling I come away from the sessions feeling is joy! It’s wonderful to see people let go and have so much fun together. Of course, older age comes with its challenges and I’ve become acutely aware of the impact that conditions such as dementia can have, which is sometimes sobering. It’s a real cliché, but it genuinely makes me determined to enjoy my life while I can and not let it pass me by. I want to be someone with lots of interesting stories to tell many years down the line when I’m speaking to younger generations!

You must have met some amazing people along the way. Tell us about those that make it all worthwhile.

Oh goodness, so many! I spoke to a lady on the VE Day anniversary this year who has dementia and struggles greatly with short-term memory, but told me fascinating stories about how it felt to be a nine-year-old girl during the Blitz. I remarked on how nice a lady’s nails looked at one care home in Leyton and she said that she asks her carer to paint them every Monday before the children come in as it’s the most special time of her week. That really touched me. We have a few regular attendees who used to be midwives and they get such a kick out of cuddling babies again! And I’ve seen people crying with loneliness or confusion, then half an hour later when Songs & Smiles starts they’re laughing and singing and saying what a wonderful morning they’ve had. One lady sat and cried through the first session she attended while a wonderful dad who’d come with his new baby held her hand. The carers said that it was an outpouring of happiness and she’d experienced a real emotional release. I struggled to hold back the tears myself!

What’s the very best thing about what you do?

Knowing that we’ve hit on a formula that is a win-win for everyone involved. It’s not about one group doing something ‘for’ another, it’s about lots of people from different walks of life coming together for mutual benefit. We’re lucky enough to get lots of lovely feedback and each person who takes the time to get in touch or leave a review gives us a real boost.

What’s next for The Together Project?

We’re looking to expand much more widely over the coming 12 months, particularly focusing on London. Our long-term aim is a range of different intergenerational activities bringing together different age groups and living circumstances, and I’ve got an idea involving new parents that I’m really keen to launch. However I’m off on maternity leave early next year so that will have to go on the backburner for a little while!

What is the legacy you hope to leave?

The world could certainly use a bit more compassion and understanding right now, so I hope that Songs & Smiles helps to develop those traits in a new generation. And that those who are at the other end of their lives feel part of something special that gives them happiness and a sense of community. Many of the residents who attend our groups rarely leave the homes and some don’t ever get visitors, so this is an incredibly valuable way to bring the outside world to them, with a big dose of fun and laughter.

The Songs & Smiles sessions at Gawthorne Court (the venue photographed here) are sponsored by Clarion Futures, a charitable foundation of Clarion Housing Group, which includes the country’s largest housing association. This exists to provide people with the tools and support they need to overcome their challenges, transforming lives and communities for the better. Clarion Futures has committed to investing £150 million over 10 years to deliver one of the largest social investment programmes in the country. 

And if all those investments are as worthwhile as this one, then I wish them all the best for a long and successful future. 

If you’re based in London and at a loose end with your 0-4 year old, check out the Songs & Smiles website for the full timetable of musical events. 

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