On your doorstep
We speak to David Smith
Since our inception Shine has spoken to many older people in Leeds, but all of them over the phone or on Zoom. Now Covid restrictions have eased we are starting to see people in real life. To keep everyone safe we meet outdoors – on people’s doorsteps. In this feature we’ve teamed up with the Centre for Ageing Better to some meet some inspirational older people who are active in their communities; people who are defying the negative stereotypes about getting older and redefining what ageing can look like. You can watch a short segment of the interview or read the full interview below.
A softly spoken gentleman, David lives by himself on a quiet road in Halton. However, his volunteering life is anything but quiet: David is involved in a huge amount of community projects where he lives. David is also a keen musician. When we visited, he treated us and his neighbours to a one-man ukulele concert! David tells his volunteering story below.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a retired scientist but now I’m a trustee at Cross Gates Good Neighbours Scheme and at Leeds Older People’s Forum. I’m also part of Halton in Bloom.
Why is your community important to you?
To me, community means people in a place together. It’s not just people, it’s people who got some sort of connection or history with a certain place. For me, the places where I feel a sense of community are Burmantofts (where I grew up) and now Halton (where I’ve lived for the last 40 or 50 years). When I was first here – when I was a boy – it was much more of a village. My family moved here in the 1960s. But it’s changed a lot. It still feels like home to me. One of my great uncles used to live up here – just near the York pub up there – and I used to come and visit him. It just feels like coming home again, when I’m here.
Leeds means my home-town and all that evokes. I spent six years in Oxford but that was at the University, where I got my first degree in Chemistry and my DPhil in Biochemistry (that’s the same as a PhD).For most of my life after that, I lived in London and worked at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for 35 years. However I was always going to retire back to Leeds.
What projects are you involved with?
I got involved with Cross Gates Good Neighbours Scheme when both my parents passed away. Some of my neighbours in the street here suggested I should get out and do some things, so I joined the organisation. I really liked it. Very soon I realised that many of the members there – older people – do volunteering for the charity. And I thought I should as well.
One of the first things I did when I joined Cross Gates Good Neighbours was to join the befriending scheme. The suggested I become a befriender. I’m with a chap who lives about 5 minutes’ walk from here. He’s a stroke survivor. A fairly bad stroke. He’s got limited movement on his right side. I originally agreed to visit him for 12 weeks at home, for an hour a week. Eventually we decided we’d prefer to go out. We could go to men’s groups. Eventually we started going to a gym in Armley. That was a nice outing for both of us – we both enjoyed it actually. Obviously, we couldn’t stop it after 12 weeks, so we’ve kept it going for 4 years! Not recently, of course.
Then, through my scientific interests, I got involved with Time to Shine, analysing the results and studying the effects of the work they were doing with lonely and isolated people. Now I’m involved in the Health and Care systems in Leeds. I’m very interested in that area.
I’m also keen on keeping the area looking good. Halton in Bloom was started a few years ago by a lady called Jenny Marshall. She thought Halton needed cheering up a bit. She’s done a brilliant job. There’s a lot more flowers now; the place is a lot cleaner. I try and go out every Sunday for 2 or 3 hours – do something with the flowers, or just tidy up the weeds. There’s a place close to me: Dial House. It’s a 300-year-old house. We look after the garden. It’s used now for people who are seriously mentally unwell. They actually run it through the night as a crisis centre. People can go for a refuge – and I look after the garden. Halton In Bloom led to me accidentally becoming the first Womble in Halton, though volunteer litter-picking is now well organised under Leeds City Council’s Litter Free Leeds scheme, with a great many Halton Wombles of all ages going out with the familiar purple bags.
Why is volunteering so important?
For me, it’s about giving something back. After getting through your life with lots of opportunities, abilities, and experiences. When you’re retired you can give something back to the community by using that experience and applying it. That’s very rewarding, I think. Most volunteers do think it’s rewarding. It’s very satisfying.
Of course, the pandemic has affected everything. How did you cope? And can you see any positives from it?
Lockdowns actually didn’t change my life very much at all because I’ve always lived on my own. With the rapid onset of Zoom meetings, even my interest and involvement in the health & care sectors in Leeds didn’t really take a dip, although it’s become clear to me and many others that Zoom can’t fully replace face-to-face meetings.
The one positive thing about Covid is that it’s helped many older people become digitally connected. Most of them never realised the advantages of digital until they did it – they just needed that stimulus. We have a very good digital coordinator at Cross Gates. We’ve helped many people get on Zoom and take part in our online activities in Lockdown.
One of your hobbies is the ukulele, isn’t it?
It’s one of the big things in my life. One of the first things I did when I joined Cross Gates Good Neighbours was to realise they had a Ukulele Group. I said, “OK, I’ll join it”. I’d played guitars all my life but until then I’d never really thought about the ukulele. That was about 3 or 4 years ago now. Since then, I’ve become more or less obsessed with ukuleles: I collect them and play them.
This ukulele was made by the famous Martin Company in the USA. It was made in the 1920s. It’s called a Style 0, which is their most basic model. It’s got virtually no decoration on it. But it was made with the finest mahogany, rosewood and ebony by great craftsmen. These ukuleles have never been equalled.
How has the world changed since you were growing up?
I don’t think the world has got better or worse. It’s just different really.
How to you feel about getting older?
I more or less ignore getting older really. I do accept that ageism is a problem for some people. I think ageism has only become apparent in the time since people been able to live a substantial number of years after they retire, having a useful and healthy life. Before that, yes, society was ageist, but that’s because there were a lot of reasons to fear becoming old. You wouldn’t have many years of older life! My parents’ generation were probably the first to live into their 70s or 80s with a reasonable standard of life. So you could enjoy retirement. Before that, people tended to die just after retiring at 65. I don’t really understand why that is – it might be something to do with vaccinations.
Have you felt discriminated against because of your age?
Not particularly. But I don’t go looking for it. I probably wouldn’t even notice it! The only thing I do notice is that when you’re in London, on the Underground, some kind people will stand up and offer you their seat. Which really does make you feel old. But apart from that, I don’t notice anything.
What’s the best thing about getting older?
There are lots of things. The main one is that you don’t have to worry about what people think about you any more. That’s the definitely the best thing. Another thing is that when you’re retired, you can do what you like. If you have enough money to indulge a few hobbies, it can be very enjoyable.
Quick Q & A with David Smith
When did you last laugh?
I always laugh at Private Eye magazine, which I’ve read since I was a sixth
former in the 1960s. I suppose that tells you something about my sense
of humour. The last proper laugh was listening to George Formby songs.
In fact, I learned a learned one of his very very naughty songs just
recently. I performed it in Castleford last month. It’s from the 1940s – it
doesn’t really translate to nowadays!
Who do you admire?
I’ve got very great respect for our Chief Executive Officer at Cross Gates Good Neighbours, Jo Horsfall. She’s so dedicated and full of foresight and resilience. She drives the charity really well. I also admire one or two people who work within the health & care system in Leeds, but I won’t tell you who they are.
What’s one of your favourite places in Leeds?
I’ll say the Dark Arches, where the River Aire passes underneath Leeds City Station. They’re a triumph of Victorian railway engineering. Magnificent. To me they have a cathedral-like atmosphere, which combines strangely with the sound of the river rushing through directly beneath the Leeds station platforms.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
After a good sleep, my brain is refreshed and the experiences and learning from the day before are unscrambled. So I’m raring to go, but what I do first is just a matter of chance: maybe get some emails ready to send out, maybe practise something new on a new ukulele, maybe something else. But I’m definitely up for doing something every day.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I’ll say two players with the Leeds Rugby League team in the 50s and 60s: Lewis Jones and Jack Fairbank. This was long before the Leeds Rhinos name came in. Anyone who was at Headingely in 1961 and saw Jack Fairbank’s famous tackle on Billy Boston of Wigan will understand.
What keeps your brain active?
Science and music. Science, as it’s applied to the Health & Care system. Music, as in learning things on the ukulele.
When were you happiest in your life?
This is a difficult one. I can’t say I’ve ever really been unhappy! Probably now actually.
Thanks David for letting us On Your Doorstep.
Thanks to the Centre for Ageing Better for sponsoring this feature.
The Centre for Ageing Better has a vision for society where everyone
enjoys later life.
Find out more about the great work they do at www.ageing-better.org.uk