When she was just six months old, Susana António’s parent sent her to live with her grandparents. Both parents were working in Lisbon, and they simply didn’t have enough time to really be there for their infant daughter, so she went to live with her mother’s parents in the nearby city of Setúbal through age five. Her grandfather was a retired farm foreman; her grandma, a retired governess and accomplished seamstress who supplemented her pension by taking in sewing. “I really grew up under her sewing machine, surrounded by her fabrics and threads and yarns,” recalled Susana, a co-founder of A Avó Veio Trabalhar, a Lisbon-based NGO that brings elderly women together to work on sewing, knitting, crocheting and other textile projects.
The name A Avó Que Veio Trabalhar (“the grandma who came to work”) describes the organization’s mission in a nutshell: Get old people out of their homes and bring them together with people of all ages to work together on creative projects, harnessing the skills they already have and teaching them new ones. Since its founding in 2014, the initiative has attracted extensive media attention and won kudos from those who see it as a model for helping combat the social isolation, feelings of uselessness, and even depression that emerge after retirement.
With more than 20% of its inhabitants aged 65 or older, Portugal has among the oldest populations in the world. (The country ranks No. 5, after Japan, Italy, Greece and Germany.) And given the rapid pace of social change in Portugal in recent decades, the elderly here tend to be particularly susceptible to the kinds of problems, like social isolation, that tend to plague the demographic. Perhaps because the ground was so fertile for an organization serving this age group, A Avó Veio Trabalhar has taken off since Susana and her partner, Angelo Compota, founded the project with €84.000 in seed money from a grant from Lisbon City Hall. Now, more than 60 women, aged 55-92, take part in the initiative, coming from across the city to spend their afternoons together in a storefront in Lapa, where they make and sell ever-rotating collections of charming home goods.
Everything, from the cute throw pillows to the blankets, is 100% handmade using the techniques – crochet, knitting, weaving, sewing, embroidering – that many of the ladies learned as children, as well as other techniques, like silk-screening, that Susana teach them. The Avós, or grandmas, as they call themselves, have been invited to take part in design fairs throughout Portugal and in other European countries – meaning that, thanks to the project, many of the participants have gotten to travel abroad and even speak at big events.
Maria Diniz, known in the group as Avó Milã, a 79-year-old retired lawyer, says it help fills the hole in her life that appeared after she stopped working. “It brings us out of our shell and into a community, exposing us to lots of different sorts of people and giving us something fun and creative to do with our hands,” she said. “It’s are rejuvenating experience.” Susana credits the formative years she spent with her grandparents as true origin of the project. The years she spent with them not only whet her creative appetite –eventually leading Susana to study design, first at Lisbon’s School of Fine Arts and later in Milan – but also gave her an abiding affection for the elderly. “Perhaps because they’ve lived longer and become wiser with experience, my grandparents really instilled me with different kinds of values - really human values.”
Design school left her disillusioned with mass production and hungry for a different approach to the creative process. It was then, when Susana was in her early 20s, that she started volunteering at a Lisbon retirement home. “I had realized that designing all sorts of stuff to be churned out in factories wasn’t going to bring me much satisfaction,” said Susana, adding, “I found that satisfaction during the hours I spent each week in in the retirement home.” As nearly all the women residents had learned sewing and other manual crafts in their youth – “they all prepared their own dowries” – the projects Susana worked on with her group were focused on the textile arts, she said. “They brought this wealth of expertise in traditional techniques, and I brought my understanding of contemporary design – and together we could create products that were at once handmade and modern,”she recalled. “And over the three years that I worked with them, I really noticed how these women changed, and started looking and acting different. I realized that it wasn’t just helping them pass the time; it was giving allowing them to live again. “Ultimately, I came to understand that by using creativity to stimulate older people, they can continue to grow – even within the confines of an institution.”
The lesson stayed with Susana, and even after the retirement home closed, she continued to think back on the experience over the following decade, as she worked as a freelance design consultant, primarily in the third sector. When she heard about a competition, held by Lisbon City Hall, to win more than €80.000 in seed money to start a social program, Susana joined up with Angelo, a psychologist by training, to present a project. Five years later, A Avó Veio Trabalhar has almost reached self-sustainability, meaning the group is now bringing in around 90 percent of the €40.000 annual budget through product sales, as well as special orders, workshops, corporate team building trainings and other events. The organization has grown so much that the looming challenge now is a lack of room. They’re outgrown their 65 m2 space on the Rua do Poço dos Negros and are looking to rent a place roughly twice that size. “We want to be able to bring as many people as possible into this special community,” said Susana.