I was thinking the other day about that old saying “A stranger is only a friend you haven’t met yet!” But could you become a friend to a stranger, or possibly an elderly and isolated person? Do you have something to give, do you feel lonely yourself, or perhaps you want to improve your own wellbeing by helping others?
Last week and as a result of the Jo Cox ‘Commission on Loneliness’, the UK government created, what the media has dubbed, a Minister for Loneliness. A recent study found that more than nine million adults in the UK are currently socially isolated and this can have devastating consequences for their physical and psychological wellbeing. That’s a huge number and the elderly comprise well over a third of that number. An analysis by ‘Age UK’ shows 3.6 million people aged 65 saw their TV as their main form of company. Indeed, polling by ‘Independent Age’ also found more than 1 in 3 people aged 75 or over felt their feelings of loneliness were out of control, and they often go days, or even weeks, with no social interaction at all. Politicians continue to argue over the reasons for this and whether cut backs to services are at the root of the increase, nonetheless the loneliness minister continues to stress there is no single solution. Whatever the cause, it’s quite obvious that solutions need to be found to address this issue. But is such loneliness inevitable, or can volunteers make a positive difference to the lives of socially isolated older people?
One national charity is attempting to address this problem but they don’t have enough volunteers and they need your help! ‘Contact The Elderly’ (CTE) was set up in 1965 to try and address some of the social isolation experienced by many older people by offering them ‘a change of scenery and regular afternoons of conversation and laughter’. Supported by a network of volunteers, the organisation arranges monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for small groups of older people (aged 75 and over) who live alone, offering regular and vital friendships.
Once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, each older guest is collected from their home by a volunteer driver, and taken to a volunteer host’s home, where they join a small group for tea, talk and companionship. The group is warmly welcomed by a different host each month, but the charity’s drivers and older guests remain the same. This means that over the months and years, acquaintances turn into friends and loneliness is replaced by companionship.
This was the experience of Sarah a volunteer with CTE, who initially heard about the charity via a programme broadcast on BBC Radio Newcastle. The broadcast highlighted many of the issues relating to the loneliness of isolated older people. “The thought that any person could go a month or more without any contact, just broke my heart”, so she decided there and then to help.
As a farmer’s daughter Sarah was raised in some very rural and isolated communities. She has worked for the NHS and with the elderly as an active member of Safeguarding Adults in the North East and Yorkshire, and she currently works as a Health, Safety, Environment and Quality adviser within the construction industry based in Carlisle
At first Sarah, who volunteered as a driver, did not know what to expect because she had no previous experience doing this type of voluntary work and at 32 she felt she was one of the younger volunteers. Most of the other volunteers were seasoned charity or church workers, so in comparison Sarah felt a bit of an interloper. Despite her initial reservations however, Sarah was made to feel very welcome and says she benefited from the enthusiasm of her team. She attended regular group meetings and felt well supported by her Area Co-ordinators Val and Sheila who helped her understand the issues and put her at ease.
Although her initial experience was as a driver for the group, Sarah soon realised her local area experienced not only shortfalls in the number of hosts and drivers who were available, but the volunteer numbers are restricted in specific geographic areas. Indeed, her group actually got off to a rather chaotic start because they had not secured a Group Co-ordinator (GC), the person who introduces any potential volunteers to the scheme, organises the drivers, creates hosting schedules and liaises with drivers, hosts and guests. Therefore, Sarah stepped forward and offered to take on the GC role as well as driver role. She said “I’m so glad I did! It doesn’t take up much more time, but its time very well spent, and I thoroughly enjoy the role.”
Sarah thinks she has developed on many levels since she began. She has benefitted from being a pivotal member of the team, regularly engaging with members of the community and working with and between other charitable agencies. Although Sarah’s team keep her “in the loop” with any changes or new ideas, she feels she benefits from their knowledge too. Indeed, as most are involved with other local organisations they also advise Sarah about who to contact and what other support services are available.
Sarah accepts that her role can be time consuming and challenging but believes it is also very rewarding “and humbling!” Sarah feels that her main frustration is that the demands on the organisation outstrips the supply of the service. Basically, “I receive a constant stream of names and telephone numbers of isolated elderly people who would absolutely benefit from this service.” However, “sourcing enough volunteers is a constant challenge!”
When asked what has been THE most positive thing about her volunteering experience so far, Sarah said “I have made some life-long friendships and now class my guests as extended family members”. In fact, she now spends a lot of her personal time with a small group “outside of my charity role” With one eye on future work Sarah believes exposure to other charitable groups/members has also given her an insight into available opportunities and how she might progress in future.
If Sarah’s story has inspired you to volunteer, then why not visit Northumberland CVA’s Volunteer Connect database to start exploring the opportunities available in the county