All sorts of people can be befrienders…. We have some shy volunteers, some loud volunteers, different characters and personalities! But they all have a heart for people and especially for those who are by themselves or vulnerable – they are kind and compassionate.
Engage Befriending has been providing older people in Reading with befrienders since 2012. A team of volunteer coordinators, led by project manager Katherine Shepherd, pride themselves on connecting their clients, aged 60 or over, with volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. The coordinators meet with both befrienders and befriendees, then make careful matches based on interests, personality and proximity within the local community.
Marlene Partington, Volunteer Coordinator for Engage Befriending, says ‘older people have so much to share about their life experience and who they are, but because of reduced mobility or sickness it’s harder to get out and socialise’. The Engage Befriending scheme provides them with home visitors and companions who are not carers or members of their family. Marlene explains: ‘A lot of clients say that they see four carers a day, which is great – but they are so busy with helping – hygiene, making food etc – that they don’t sit down to talk’.
Other clients say that while they do see their family, it can be restrictive talking to them. Concerns about housing, finances, and health can dominate the conversation. An outsider can come in and say ‘are you enjoying the sunshine?’ or give them a chance to talk about the family relationship, if it’s challenging. Where possible, befrienders go out and about with their befriendees – to a lunch club, to a pub for dinner, or just for a walk. They also signpost clients to community groups and support services to encourage connections with the local community.
Marlene started out as a volunteer for Engage Befriending and continues to make weekly visits to the lady she was originally matched with, who is bed-bound. For Marlene, befriending is a very positive experience and she talks warmly about the points of connection she has with her befriendee:
She loves to chat about anything and everything, she loves to talk about her cooking. She can’t cook any more, but it brings a smile to her face to talk about her memories of it and share those experiences again. She moved to the UK from abroad, as I did, so sometimes we talk about what was new for us about living in the UK, how it’s different, in a positive way. We don’t talk about why she is in bed, that doesn’t come up much. We talk about it if she wants to, but for her, our time together is an outlet … it’s nice, we laugh together. She has been trying to draw again. One week I had to guess what she had drawn – sometimes I could see it, sometimes I was wrong! – but those little things [are so important].
Recently, Marlene has matched an 87-year old man with a woman in her late twenties and says ‘I was wondering how it would go, but they are having fun because of their shared interests in music, art and theatre’. The both find it enriching to hear about the other’s approach to, and experiences of, their common interests.
Engage Befriending get referrals to their service from social workers, district nurses and GPs. Demand for the service is high and they always have clients who are waiting to be matched with volunteers. The service must therefore be constantly searching for new befrienders – through word of mouth, social media, churches and community centres. The team keeps in touch with other local charities, too, through events like the Ready Friends Befriending Forums. If one befriending scheme cannot find a volunteer in a certain area of Reading, or with a specific interest, then they can ask the others if they have someone available. As Marlene puts it: ‘we are all working for the same cause’.
The project is part of The Mustard Tree, a Christian charity. Volunteers don’t have to be Christians, but must share the organisation’s aim of supporting and empowering people who society overlooks and excludes, opening up opportunities for change. The vision of founder Jeremy Sharpe was to engage people with their wider communities to reduce their sense of isolation and increase their self-confidence and sense of independence.
But it’s clear that befriending through Engage is not just a one-way process – it’s equally rewarding for volunteers. Befrienders receive training and ongoing support from the Engage Befriending team and Marlene explains:
To give an hour where you are not on Facebook or whatever and really focus on the individual – it’s really enjoyable and to see the effect it has on clients… it’s a lot of fun!