Friendship at Home
It is well documented that loneliness among older people in Britain is on the increase and research indicates it can be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day*. Lonely individuals are more likely to visit their GP, use medication, fall, undergo early entry into residential care and use A&E independent of chronic illness. State services and the NHS can only do so much. What has to happen is the engagement of local communities.
I have seen this week the incredible kindness and commitment that people here in North East Lincolnshire are willing to make to help those isolated in their neighbourhoods. These are people with families and jobs of their own and such commitment is rightly on their terms. Volunteers say what they can offer and how they can offer it and the elderly members are part of the process of how that time is shaped. In many cases Friendship at Home has even empowered their more mobile older members initially receiving services to actually go out and become befrienders themselves.
Friendship at Home began life ten years ago as a scheme funded by a legacy to Help the Aged in order to reduce loneliness and isolation amongst the elderly, the charity has since grown to actively supporting over 400 in their local community. It may be small but its operational model is both innovative and well proven to help more people come together in their neighbourhoods in order to combat isolation.
I accompanied the lovely Dawn “Dawny from Grimsby” Charlton** on a befriending visit to Sarah***. Sarah is a lady in her 70s largely bed bound due to spinal problems. Sarah receives both befriending and independent living support from the charity (shopping, domestic, utility bills and appointment support) and her home is clean and welcoming. Dawn and I pull up a seat beside Sarah’s bed. In front of her lies a crossword, on her bedside a telephone and toiletries, a photograph of some children and to her immediate left a zimmer frame. At the end of her bed is a television which Sarah tells me she turns on each morning simply to hear other voices. A thought which sticks with me.
Sarah herself is extremely chatty and I quickly learn she has led quite a colourful life. Once she reached the age of 18, Sarah resolved to travel around Australia much to her family’s cynicism at the time. Upon her return to Northern Ireland she met a military man and married him shortly afterwards before making the move to North Lincolnshire. Despite her bed-bound state as we talk I can see that the same spirited young woman that flew to the other side of the world is still inside her. Sarah explains that all the family she has now are back in Northern Ireland and I choose not to pry any further but instead we talk about her befriending visits. Sarah tells me that last week her befriender brought round her two small children who coloured her some pictures for her. The little girl had apparently misspelt her name in quite an unfortunate manner which appeared to tickle Sarah so much when telling me that tears began rolling down her cheeks! It was lovely to hear and it was clear to me how much such a small gesture had meant to her. As we leave I ask Sarah to describe her experience with Friendship at Home, and she replies that it has been “truly life changing”, giving her “something to look forward to each week”. As I gather my belongings to leave, Sarah waves from the bed and I only wish I could come back again to chat to her further. Older people often make the best story tellers and I linger on the thought without charities like Friendship at Home, these wonderful moments would be lost forever and such wisdom and knowledge wasted.
Later in the week I am invited to attend the Culture Club in Immingham, a town I learn that has very little provision for older people. The club was launched as a friendship club only a few months ago and its need here is clear. I speak to a lovely couple who have been married for over 60 years, forced to leave their village home they had shared for the past 50 years because of cuts to the local bus service and the need to access their local doctors. Immingham is new to them and this club on a Monday is a social life line to meet other people in the area. I meet Jane*** who was, up until a few month’s ago, all but house bound. Friendship at Home began befriending Jane and persuaded her to come along to one of the friendship clubs by driving her there and introducing her to people. On her first visit, Jane's befriender was always there by her side but now she gets stuck in quite happily and she describes it as the highlight of her week.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt this week, it is that older people have the best sense of humour. I attended the Wednesday club for dementia sufferers run by outreach co-ordinator Linda and oh my goodness did I meet some characters! Not least the eccentric Fred*** whose cheery demeanour, collection of comic relief noses and handmade comedy hats makes Lenny Henry look rather dull. Fred tells me that life is too short not to laugh and he loves to spread cheer each day and I find myself laughing at him laughing as much as anything else! I meet a lady called Beatrice*** who compliments me on my height and asks if I like dancing, I learn that she was quite a dancer in her day performing at Blackpool and other places. It is only when she asks me a second time whether I like dancing that I am reminded she has dementia. Linda and I spoke at length about the condition which also affects someone close to me in my family and I learnt a really valuable point about living in the moment. Linda explained that it can be frustrating to have put time and thought into spending a great day with a loved one together at the beach for example only to return home and find they have forgotten all about it. It is proven however that alzheimers sufferers feel emotion long after memory has faded. Patients continue to feel happy or sad long after watching an emotive film. It is thought therefore that whilst they may not remember exactly what you did together that warm feeling will still remain.
I had the pleasure of attending Thursday club at Beaconsfield church led by the lovely Toni, a group for more active older people with activities including Bingo, dancing and singing. We were even treated this week to a local ukulele band, Kiosk Queue Rejuvenated and sang along to hits including “bring me sunshine” “que sera sera” and the Dad’s Army theme tune! It’s not often I have the opportunity to sing and so myself and Ernie, an elderly volunteer, gave it fully beans and I can tell you I absolutely loved it!
Following a recent return on social investment study by Cert Ltd, Friendship at Home was found to produce £15.69 of social benefit for every £1 invested. It is therefore no surprise that it has been approached by other communities looking to replicate the model. It would seem to me that the knowledge this charity has garnered and its successes could be deployed effectively as a franchise in other parts of Britain. I only wish I had the time to help them spread such good.
Befriending schemes are a low-cost way of enabling socially isolated older people grow in confidence, find a renewed sense of identity and can lead to increased participation in society and meaningful relationships. To volunteer with Friendship at Home needs a minimum commitment of just one hour per week. If you want to make the biggest difference you can with limited time then I would urge you to consider volunteering for them. Equally if you are interested in setting up a similar project in your community then please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org as myself, the team and Friendship at Home would be happy to support you.
All good things
** Nickname derived from the 2016 Sacha Baron Cohen comedy film, Grimsby)
*** Names changed to protect identity