‘Godsend’: Hackney residents hail over-60s lunch club aiming to combat loneliness

Guests sit down for lunch. Photograph: Julia Gregory

A special set of diners have shared how a Hackney lunch club has been a “godsend” for building friendships.

“This club is about family,” said local resident and volunteer Menekse Saitoglu, who helps cook up a storm for her neighbours.

Laughter is the first thing that strikes you as guests arrive for the weekly get-together at Hackney Showroom on the Kings Crescent estate opposite Clissold Park.

The club has an open-door policy and is aimed at over-60s who want to enjoy good food, company and dancing.

The Showroom’s Nina Lyndon explained that it has been going since 2021 and the team did some training before the first bowl of soup was served.

“We were nervous about how we were going to keep people entertained,” she said. “We were told people will find their own thing and that was completely right.”

She added: “It’s about kindness and also a personalised approach. You have to know every individual and be interested in people.

“It’s an open door all week. We help with documents, and the amount of boilers that we have reset for people!”

The team collects guests who have difficulty with mobility and check up if someone’s not been for a few weeks.

The pandemic hit people’s confidence and increased their sense of isolation.

Volunteer chef Menekse Saitoglu. Photograph: Julia Gregory

One lunch clubber told the Citizen: “I don’t come for the food, I come for the company. It’s a chance for me to eat with other people as I eat on my own all the time.”

The woman first ventured out after the pandemic this May and confided that “it’s a constant effort to get back into the routine”.

Lyndon said: “Some people, when they first arrived, did not eat or speak, but the smiles when they come here now are really rewarding.”

“You don’t have to register,” said Saitoglu. “It’s a real open door.”

Some guests learnt about it from neighbours or from chats on the bus.

Yulette Tanner said she relished meeting up with others.

“I enjoy socialising and getting out of the house because otherwise I just stay indoors with boring TV.”

The 69-year-old said she loved the “very healthy” food.

Dorothy Francis, 66, has suffered a series of bereavements in the last few years. She’s lived in the area for nearly 40 years and seen a lot of changes.

She said the lunch club “has been a godsend to me”.

She’s not the only guest who has been hit by bereavement over the pandemic, and the staff and volunteers know the lunch club might be the only time visitors break bread with others.

When they arrive, guests are greeted with a long table set for lunch with colourful sharing platters of fruit, vegetables and cheeses.

They can also enjoy sandwiches, biscuits, and tea and coffee before they are served with a hot bowl of soup followed by desert.

Saitoglu cooks up a series of Turkish and other soups and asks guests what they would like.

One week a newcomer said they would be tempted by tomato, so that was on the menu the next week.

Harold Duncan regales people with his reggae band exploits. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Residents can come and go as they please, and if bingo and dancing isn’t their thing, there’s no pressure to join in.

The club had support from Hackney Council to buy equipment for making soup in what is quite a small kitchen.

It has also won funding from the Mercers’ company, which offers grants to those preventing loneliness and poverty for older people.

The venue served as an official warm space during the winter, and while the aim was to provide support when fuel costs soared, it was the companionship that proved more important.

Project co-ordinator Georgia Murphy said people relished getting together to enjoy a hot meal and chat.

The Showroom also rents out space for artists and sometimes they join the diners and help out with entertainment, such as musical performances.

When it comes to music and dancing, Harold Duncan, known to everyone as simply Duncan, is the expert.

“Music has been my life,” he said.

He had his own reggae band, Lookout, and has performed everywhere from the West End and the Hackney Empire to the Notting Hill Carnival.

His neighbour introduced him to the lunch club and he now shares memories of when he first heard the tracks on the stereo.

As lunch ends, some of the clubbers get up for a dance, and they are still doing a jig as they head out of the door.

The Hackney Showroom lunch club runs every Friday from midday until 2pm.

To find out more, visit hackneyshowroom.com/friday-lunch-club.