There were smiles all round at Age UK’s Cherry Tree Centre on Friday as members tucked into their Christmas dinner.
They were dressed in their favourite festive outfits, singing carols, and chatting and laughing away with their best friends.
Their faces lit up when their friends arrived – some who had not been to the centre for a while due to being unwell or in hospital.
Tables were full up and members were saying it was the biggest crowd they had ever seen at the centre’s annual Christmas event.
I chatted to members while we munched on a delicious three-course meal.
“We have lovely cooks here,” they said.
It is just lovely that we are all together here at the centre, it is lonely every day but when we are here with our friends it makes all the difference.Member Maureen Smither
“The staff go above and beyond – it means everything to us to be here at Christmas.”
“It was clear I was part of a special community that was important. It also made me realise that a lot of us can take things for granted, like having someone to come home to at Christmas. Some of these members don’t have anyone at home waiting for them.
“It is just lovely that we are all together here at the centre, it is lonely every day but when we are here with our friends it makes all the difference,” said Maureen Smither, 77, who has been coming to the centre since losing her husband.
“We all look forward to it and the staff really put themselves out. It would be devastating if we didn’t have this next year,” she added.
Age UK announced in October it would be closing the centre when its lease runs out in March next year.
It has pledged to offer its current services at new venues across the town.
Gary Hardley, head of community activities at Age UK West Sussex, who came to the dinner, said the charity hopes, with support from others, that they can run the centre for at least another year.
“We are trying to do the best for our members,” he said.
“No one wants it to close and the news of the closure has turned their lives upside down.
“It is lovely to see the members at events like this. Some of these people here might not have a Christmas dinner – this will be their Christmas dinner, that is the saddest thing about it.
“If we do have to close we won’t be stopping the services, we just won’t be in one centre. There are people who want to work with us to keep the centre running for another year and we are in the process or sorting other venues and several are on board.
“You will not believe how much manpower is involved and how many are fighting to keep it open. We are trying our best – these members are people’s nans or grandads and and I would want someone to look after my nan.”
It was the second Christmas meal of the week at the centre.
Members had the option to go last Tuesday too and town mayor Jacqui Landriani came along on this day too.
“Jacqui had a great time,” said member John Alderson, 83.
“We had her up dancing. It is so nice to get everyone together in the centre like this to celebrate Christmas.
“Christmas is a lonely time for people here, they are without their husbands and wives so that is why they come here.
“Christmas is the worst possible time for people who have lost their partner. We are trying to keep positive, we want it to stay open.”
Myrtle Williams, 88, who has been a member for 14 years, said the centre ‘means everything’ during Christmas.
“It is so lovely to have all the company to chat to. It is a happy time, and we look forward to it,” she added.
Fred Green, 95, an ex-POW who worked on the Burma ‘death railway’, has been going to the centre for ten years and calls it his ‘second home’.
He is the oldest member at the centre.
“It gives me a happy heart. I lost my wife ten years ago so it is my second home,” he said.
Volunteer Christine Cox, 66, of Bramber Way, Burgess Hill, chatted to both me and Fred as we tucked into our turkey.
“I think it will be really sad if the centre does close, the facilities here are amazing,” she said.
“There is a lounge, hairdressers, and a hall for them to play bowls. They love it here and it is a massive part of their lives.
“For some of them it is a lifeline and I don’t think I was aware of this until I started working here.”
Christine, who is retired, volunteers at the centre on Friday mornings and said she really enjoys chatting to the members.
“I didn’t realise what I was walking into and I love it – it is like a little community,” she said.
“Even though I am not a member I feel part of it and I think a lot of the people who work here do.
“And it is really nice to give something back after working all these years.
“It is absolutely important to have events at the centre like this.
“Since I have been here they always have things going on for the members.”
Barbara Shingles, 80, was smiling and laughing with her friends at the meal as they helped each other solve a Christmas wordsearch.
She has been a member at the centre for seven years.
“The centre means everything to me,” she told me.
“It is having the company and they are my friends and we help each other out. It would be very upsetting if this was the last time, we just don’t want that to happen.”
Member Derek Davies, 92, who lives in Wivelsfield, made it to the centre that day having only just got out of hospital. He also lost his partner a couple of weeks ago.
His son Stephen, 63, a retired primary school teacher, who lives in Hove, came to the dinner to support him.
“Dad has been a member for three years. He got out of hospital two days ago,” he said.
“He would feel lonely without this place. It gives him a reason to go out and to get dressed. He has friends here who look after him.
“Loneliness is a big problem in elderly people and can destroy them. They often feel left out and a lot of the time they don’t want to make a big thing out of it so they stay in silence.
“Dad lost his partner a couple of weeks ago, she had dementia. At one point they stayed in the same nursing home which was a complete coincidence.
“She gave him a reason to get up, even though she had dementia, but now there is no reason for him to get up, so this place is incredibly important.
“I can’t imagine what people would be doing if they weren’t here. They would be at home on their own, there is that feeling of hopelessness.
“It needs to be seen as a priority as the benefits are so massive.
“We have to give them hope. And it is going to events like this which gives them a reason to get up and something to live for.
“Lots of these members haven’t got anyone at home and their relatives are far away. So they will just be at home on their own.”