A life-saving friendship scheme that combats loneliness among the county’s most isolated people is set to reach more than 2,000 residents thanks to a £200,000 pledge from Essex County Council.
Grants have been awarded to Age UK Essex, Colchester Community Voluntary Services, Royal Association for Deaf People, working with Support4Sight, Age Concern Southend, West Essex Mind and Action For Family Carers, to ensure this vital volunteer-led support continues for 18 months beyond the end of the current contract with Age UK Essex in October.
The revamped befriending services will help 2,000 lonely people – up from 500 under the current scheme – and will clear a 100-strong waiting list in the process, with the chosen providers better placed to reflect local demand across the county.
The service will continue to offer traditional telephone calls and home visits, but be more tailor-made with providers offering a bigger network of support to combat isolation, such as supporting people to meet friends at lunch or friendship clubs and go on day trips.
For the first time, the improved service will provide specialist sensory support, to help older people who have become increasingly isolated due to hearing or sight loss, and also offer specialist provision for family carers in need of support.
Volunteers offer friendship either on the phone or at a client’s home; they train people to use computers and other gadgets to help them stay connected with family and friends; coordinate and run groups, activities and clubs; escort people on shopping trips or doctor and hospital appointments, often using their own cars; and provide much-needed respite for volunteer carers.
They will also direct clients to helplines and services to make their day-to-day lives more comfortable and worry free, whilst providing advice on issues such as preventing falls, nutrition, fuel poverty and how to avoid falling victim to a scam or rogue trader.
Several of the successful providers work in partnership to run a scheme that helps volunteers maximise their time, whilst being flexible so volunteers can ‘job swap’ to either try something different or more closely match their skills to an older person’s needs.
The new 18-month funding will allow ECC to work with the public and providers to design an enhanced model for the future, whilst continuing to deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
We will also be testing innovative solutions. For example, West Essex Mind, experts in addressing isolation and depression in older people, will help to upskill other groups to increase the network of support available throughout Essex.
The successful providers will be championing and training older people, including deaf or visually impaired users, to utilise social media to stay connected with family and friends, while one provider will give 20 tablets to customers and recruit young volunteers from local schools to train them to use video telephone apps such as Skype.
Cllr Anne Brown, Cabinet Member for Corporate, Communities and Customers, said: “We are delighted to not only continue supporting people who are isolated, lonely and vulnerable with this funding pledge, but to drastically improve the service so it reaches an extra 1,500 people, including 100-plus residents on the current waiting list for help.
“Together with Age UK Essex, we have been exploring the introduction of a befriending service model fit for the future since autumn last year.
“Due to the unprecedented financial challenges we are facing, we were unable to make a long term commitment for funding at that point and in April, Age UK Essex informed us they would be ending their befriending services.
“We were not expecting this and acted swiftly to open the funding applications to other voluntary sector organisations. Now, with six organisations countywide, including Age UK Essex, the service is better placed to meet demand countywide and reach more people than ever before.
“We want to support and empower the county’s older people to remain independent for as long as possible. We’re delighted to get this funding back into communities which is a priority for us.”
Befriending case studies
A partially-sighted man shut off from the outside world after he was made redundant has praised the kind-hearted befriending volunteers who helped get his life back on track.
A veteran of 34 years at Britvic, Graham Hawkes, 56, lost his sight gradually over the years to congenital glaucoma, but sympathetic colleagues made it possible for him to continue working in the plant where they mixed drinks.
But when the factory shut as part of a cost-cutting exercise, Graham lost all confidence, discovered he was “unemployable” due to his sight loss and quickly became lonely and isolated from the outside world.
“I’m severely short-sighted with a reduced field of vision, which means I have tunnel vision,” said Graham, a married father-of-one, from Chelmsford.
“If it’s quiet I can get around normally, but if it’s busy I can’t see people coming in at the sides and bump into everyone.
“Looking for facial features or printed words, I can’t see much and what I can see there’s no definition. If you put ten objects on a table I wouldn’t be able to tell you what they were unless I got right up close to them.”
He was referred to Support4Sight in February 2014 as redundancy loomed at Chelmsford’s iconic soft drinks factory, but felt completely “lost” when he was finally laid off and volunteer recruiters told him he was unemployable.
A visually impaired community worker was assigned to Graham, before he met several of the organisation’s peer mentors, all with sight problems, at a regular coffee morning for people in the same situation.
Graham was befriended by a mentor called Sam and began to learn he wasn’t alone. Now he is not only coping with sight loss and making new friends, but is living life to the full.
“Before I met Sam I was getting pretty depressed sitting at home all the time,” said Graham. “I knew I would never work in industry again, but I had been pretty naïve to think there was any job out there for me.
“I went to the job centre where I thought they’d be able to direct me to help or training to get back into work, but there was nothing.
“So until Sam took me under her wing, I had been really low. When I was still working I didn’t really have anything to do with the visually impaired community, so I wasn’t aware of how much help and life-changing equipment there is actually available.
“Now I can do things that I haven’t been able to do for 10 to 15 years, like read a book and use a mobile phone.”
Graham now uses a CCTV monitor that acts as a giant magnifying glass so that his wife no longer has to read his post or emails for him, and uses voice technology on mobile phones to talk to friends and family.
His confidence grew so much that a few months later he pedalled 30 miles on a tandem bike ride from Chelmsford to Saffron Walden, raising £700 for the charity’s services.
Graham is now a peer mentor too and helps people like him to cope with sight loss, and also acts as a charity ambassador at fundraising events.
As well his fundraising work, Graham launched a new social group in Chelmsford last year, where 30 local like-minded people meet to chat and make new friends.
“Meeting a Support4Sight befriending volunteer really has been life-changing for me,” he added.
Colchester Community Voluntary Services
Widow Irene Richardson has praised befriending services for changing her life after leg ulcers left her housebound for a year.
The 79-year-old former Post Office worker had finally started to build a busy social life as she learned to cope without her husband Bert, who passed away aged 69 in 2001.
But when leg ulcers left her chained to her sofa with nothing but her TV for company, she began to feel desperately lonely.
Eventually she was persuaded to go on a trip to see Cinderella, an excursion run by Colchester Community Voluntary Services (CCVS).
She enjoyed herself so much that she organised for her and 10 friends she’d met through Heybridge’s Darby and Joan club to go and see a Nat King Cole tribute act in Southend, with a minibus put on by CCVS, and has been going on day trips ever since.
“Most of us are all widows and haven’t got a partner to go out with to shows. We want to do more than just have a chat and a meal at the Darby and Joan club, there’s more to life than that,” she said.
“There are plenty of day trips but no evening entertainment, so I asked CCVS if they’d take us to Nat King Cole. He was our era and it casts back to a time when you would go out dancing with your partner, but we can’t because we’re alone.
“So it was lovely to be able to go to a show together and reminisce. It really boosts the morale.”
Irene praised her two children, four grandchildren and eight grandchildren for looking after her when she was housebound, but said the extra help she got from CCVS helped her to build a new network of friends and change her life for the better.
“My family are lovely and really look after me and do my shopping, but they only get two days off a week. When you’re stuck in a small home and not able to do anything but watch TV, it does get lonely,” she added.
“But Colchester Community Voluntary Services changed my life and I love going on the excursions because they pick me up right at my door.”
Action for Family Carers
When David King’s partner of 21 years died in January, he soon became very lonely – until befriending services lifted his spirits.
The 78-year-old former boat builder, from Witham, had cared for his beloved Norma Stanfield for the past three years after complications with her legs left her wheelchair bound, before a breast cancer diagnosis led to her passing earlier this year.
“I used to be able to take her to town in her wheelchair and do the shopping but eventually I couldn’t get her in the car on my own,” said David, a father of two daughters with three grandchildren.
“Then her leg seized up in one position which prevented her from getting dressed, so towards the end we had two carers visiting four times a day.
“So after she died it was very quiet and lonely. But Sue, a befriending volunteer at Action For Family Carers, calls me once a fortnight and we have a chat for about 20 minutes.
“She’s very nice and it’s lovely that they phone me up to see how I’m coping.
“I’m always pleased to hear her voice and I’m sure if there was something I needed they would do their best to help me.
“I’m very comfortable talking to her because I think she is very understanding.”
A woman who considered suicide as she struggled to cope with looking after her husband says befriending services quite literally saved her life.
As she fought to provide round-the-clock care for Terry, who suffers from dementia, Valerie Hadley felt like taking her own life.
Explaining how her partner’s symptoms mean he is often emotionless, Valerie said: “I could be at the end of my tether and sobbing my heart out, but Terry wouldn’t even come and put a hand on my shoulder, he’d just carry on with what he was doing.
“Of course that’s not him at all, it’s just his dementia, but I was fretting constantly about what I could do next to help him. About 18 months ago I was in a very bad place, I felt so alone and I think if I’d had a gun I would have shot myself.
“I was absolutely suicidal and I just couldn’t cope.”
While former chef Terry, 84, remains very lucid at times and even goes shopping – with large felt-tip reminders on paper to prompt him – he can’t cope with simple day-to-day things because of his memory loss.
“Terry can ask me things over and over and over and it can just drive you crazy, it’s very frustrating,” added Valerie, 76, a mother-of-two and former hypnotherapist.
“I find myself having to deliberately steer him away from worrying about things or asking me the same question again and again, and that’s not who I want to be, but I’m just doing my best.”
But when Valerie was put in touch with Maldon-based charity Action For Family Carers (AFFC), hers and Terry’s lives began to change for the better.
She was able to send Terry to day centres four days a week, instead of being stuck at home 24/7 with carers visiting – time Valerie could use to finish chores, run errands, and, more importantly, have a little time to herself.
She now gets a call from an AFFC befriending volunteer once a fortnight, someone who put her in touch with a variety of support groups, where she has built a new network of friends, like-minded people who have found themselves in similar caring roles.
She also receives counselling, organised by AFFC, to help get things off her chest and ensure she is mentally fit to care for Terry going forward, and has even received computer and iPad training so she can stay in touch with the outside world.
“The previous help I had didn’t do anything for me, it was all focussed on Terry,” she added.
“But now I’ve got a life outside. The people at AFFC are lovely and will do anything to try and help you better your life.
“I get a call once a fortnight which I’m always very pleased to get. It gives me a chance to update them on anything and can really lift your spirits knowing somebody cares. Then they put me in touch with all kinds of groups and events, and now I go out to lunch once a month with other people up my street – that gives us all a chance to discuss things and share advice.
“They really have been a God-send.”