Rua do Poço dos Negros is one of the trendiest streets in Lisbon with hip cafés and design shops. Number 124 is also focused on design. The window is colorfully decorated and there’s also a poster with a woman wearing a stylish headwrap and a bright red shirt matching her lipstick.
But it’s not just any design shop. The text on the window says “A Avó Veio Trabalhar”, which is Portuguese for “Grandma Came to Work”. The woman on the poster is over 65 years old – she is one of the elderly women who make the products sold in the shop.
The project is created by Susana António, designer, and Ângelo Compota, psychologist. Grandma Came to Work was established in 2014, when it received funding from the city of Lisbon. It is defined as an intergenerational design hub.
António designs the products, introduces her ideas to the participating women and hears their views. The participants are all over 65 years old, and they can come to work every afternoon.
Compota receives me in the space and introduces me to the “avós” as he gently calls the ladies who are present. The cozy space looks like a living room, and the “grandmas” are busy working.
“The objective is different from traditional social work: the end product also has value. We promote high-quality design products,” Compota explains.
The idea is to bring together the traditional arts of sewing, knitting and embroidery with fresh, contemporary design.
When the women retire, they often plan to rest and clean up the house. But cleaning the house doesn’t take more than two weeks, and then what?
The products can be seen in the shop: there are a brightly coloured pillows on a shelf, and potholders in trendy shades on the wall.
Each object comes with a tag with an image of the grandma who has made it. The group also receives orders from companies, and produces for example decorative items to events.
But Grandma Came to Work offers more than just design objects created by seniors.
Much more than needlework
“When the women retire, they often plan to rest and clean up the house. But cleaning the house doesn’t take more than two weeks, and then what?” Compota asks.
He describes that life after retirement is not always about freedom and relaxing, but can be depressing.
“The days pass and are all the same, you lack a weekly objective that would make you feel alive.”
This is where Grandma Came to Work steps in. It currently has around 70 participants.
The activities are beneficial for memory and maintaining fine motor skills too.
Fernanda, 82, is one of the participants. She has been around since 2014 – she has become “part of the furniture”, as she herself puts it, laughing.
As we chat she works on embroidery, with turquoise polish on her nails. She learned the skills when she was a young girl, but then spent decades without touching needles.
“We work as much as we like, there are no requirements, she tells and adds that the work is varied and interesting.”
Compota says that the project brings many health benefits for the participants. The fact that they are developing new skills and are integrated in a group is important for health. The activities are beneficial for memory and maintaining fine motor skills too, he adds.
To be with us and to be able to work is almost like returning to the work market.
“It is also important that the women feel valued, have their group of peers and are busy. It keeps the thoughts away from problems,” Compota describes.
Sometimes the participants join while mourning. The project can mean a transition to another phase.
“To be with us and to be able to work is almost like returning to the work market.”
While work is what brings the ladies together, it’s visible that for them too the project isn’t only about handicraft. Fernanda tells about her 80th birthday:
“I didn’t have any special plans. Ângelo convinced me to come over, and they had organised me a surprise party.”
She gets tears in her eyes as she tells about the day, and a colleague reaches to her from the other side of the table and gives her a hug.
“All this is worth much than all the money in the world. It is something that not everybody has. You can’t pay for friendship and affection,” Fernanda sums up.
It is important that people don’t become isolated, and that they are seen as a part as the evolution of the society.
Creating new bonds
While the essence of the project is the daily work, it includes other kind of activities too. The founders and the grandmas hold workshops to anyone interested. The group also visits different kind of events together, such as music festivals, and have participated in the Lisbon Pride march. This too creates wellbeing.
“It is important that people don’t become isolated, and that they are seen as a part as the evolution of the society,” Compota argues.
On the other hand, it also means that the grandmas keep on growing as people and feel at home in the constantly changing city.
And when the grandmas go out representing the project, they do it with style, breaking stereotypes. They choose fashionable outfits, put on some extra makeup and wear t-shirts with texts like “Old is the new young”, which is the slogan of the project, or “Love keeps you young”.
The group has also had the chance to spread their charm abroad. They recently visited the Dutch Design Week. Fernanda was deeply touched by the warm and enthusiastic reception, and the visit was a success.
“As I started making a new product, it was already sold,” she says.
Even language isn’t a barrier for these grandmas, who don’t speak English. As Compota describes it, they create an emotional and personal bond through the work, showing and teaching what they do.