If you’re going to visit someone who has been brought up in Reading, you will you get to know all about the town’s history: what building was what, where all the cinemas and theatres were, where they went dancing. We have some clients who were in Reading on the day the bombs fell in the Second World War.
Finding out about the rich history of Reading is just one of the rewarding aspects of volunteering as a befriender for Age UK Reading says the scheme’s coordinator John Evans: ‘Quite a few of our volunteers have lost their grandparents, so befriending gives them the chance to have contact with that generation and give something back to the community’.
The scheme has been running for ten years, offering both home visits and telephone calls to older people – generally aged 55 or older. Every year, the team of volunteer befrienders make thousands of phone calls and hundreds of home visits. One befriender describes her experience:
I was matched up with a lady who I visit after work for around an hour every Wednesday. At first I was very apprehensive – would we have enough to talk about? What if she doesn’t like me? What if I overstep the mark? The one phrase that I kept thinking was ‘she is probably as anxious about this as I am’. With that in the back of my mind I felt more at ease. We sat and talked about a wide range of things. I even gave her some advice on how to use her new iPad to get local news. It has been two months now and I am surprised at how much I am getting back from volunteering. I can see how much it is helping my client, but never expected to get equally as much back. It has given me a new perspective on how such a little, i.e. giving up an hour of my time each week, can make a big difference.
From the clients’ perspective, the benefits are numerous. Some value the chance to keep in touch with the outside world, others the opportunity to talk to younger people. (John particularly enjoys matching younger volunteers with befriendees because ‘they have a certain spark which can be very uplifting for the people they are visiting’.) The results of John’s last annual survey were extremely positive with respondents saying that as a result of phone calls, homes visits, or both, they felt happier, less lonely, and more able to talk about their problems.
For John, one of the key advantages of the scheme is that it is confidence-building for isolated people. They might have family who live in the area, but be looking for some social interaction outside of that. They might live in sheltered accommodation but find that there’s no sense of community with other residents. In both cases befriending fulfils an important role: ‘clients can relax with befrienders, giving them a feeling of wellbeing and hopefully making them more independent’. Befrienders can offer support with IT, reading post for those who are partially-sighted, or passing on information about other services such as Readibus, pendant alarms and Age UK’s advice and support.
John has seen the need for befriending increase over the past decade, with more referrals coming in from social services, other charities, and families, as well as self-referrals from clients. Age UK Reading’s scheme is well-established, but as with other befriending organisations, it’s an ongoing challenge to find enough volunteers to keep up with demand for the service. ‘People’s jobs change, they move away, so we always need more!’ says John.