‘Befriending is such an important service for people who have no one else’, says Mary, who has been volunteering for Engage Befriending for three years.
The lady Mary currently visits, who is her third match through the scheme, lives in a care home and has communication difficulties after suffering two strokes. Mary’s befriendee doesn’t enjoy socialising in the care home’s day room, so the fortnightly visits are a chance for her to talk one-to-one about her love of dogs or the frustrations of day-to-day life.
‘Since the second stroke she has become very difficult to understand’, says Mary, ‘so I just chat and I try to answer when she talks to me. …When I feel like we are running out of conversation, I might offer to read to her. I can tell when she’s getting tired and that’s a cue to read, as I don’t want to leave before our time is up’.
The shared reading is also about their mutual faith: ‘This afternoon I’ve sat and read the Bible to her – because I know she’s a Christian and was attending Church before’. Not everyone who volunteers for or uses Engage Befriending’s service is religious, though – the service is open to all. ‘The chap I visited before wasn’t a Christian’, says Mary, ‘so I would try to engage him in conversation on general topics, like what he had been watching on the television’.
Mary came to befriending with a background in care work, having spent many years working with people who have learning disabilities. In some ways the befriending has been an extension of this work: ‘person-centred care, which has long been part of working with people with learning disabilities, is coming into elderly care. So it comes naturally to me to think: I could be the only person hearing you’.
Nevertheless, in other ways, Mary says it is important to remember the limits of befriending, which is not the same as either care work or the friendships you develop in your private life. ‘Engage Befriending’s introductory training is important and useful in this respect’, says Mary, because you need to know the boundaries. Out of interest, I have also been able to attend dementia awareness training’.
Mary became a befriender when she was looking for something to do after retirement. As an active member of the Methodist Church, she also volunteers at a café and a toddler group and visits local people as part of the church’s pastoral system. She says: ‘I’m aware of the fact that God has given me the ability to natter away! I find it very easy to talk to people and I know of older people in my own life, who benefit enormously just for the sake of the someone popping in and seeing them’.
‘I feel for the lady I’m currently visiting because I think the only other person she sees, apart from staff, is her son. He only visits occasionally, so that’s a long, long time with nobody coming to see you and talk to you. … she frowns every time I say I have to go now – so I say “if I don’t go, I can’t come back!”’.