Loneliness is a way of life for far too many older people and it is often the kindness of strangers who make all the difference to their lives.
Nichola McDonald-Bell is one of those kind-hearted souls who dedicates time every week to keeping company individuals who have been identified as feeling cut-off, alone and in need of companionship.
As a volunteer for the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), Nichola, 49, is involved in the charity’s Good Neighbours befriending service in Sheffield.
Nichola has her own health problems having undergone four major operations in three years. She is unable to work and is registered disabled but the flexibility afforded to her by the RVS allows her to volunteer.
Nichola lives in the Bradway area of Sheffield and for the last two years she has travelled by car to visit, usually, two or three ‘clients’ each week. She also volunteers to staff a luncheon club at St John’s church in Abbeydale, attended by around 40 older people every Thursday.
It was her mother who inspired Nichola to first join the RVS 12-and-a-half years ago when the charity was known as the Womens’ Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS). Nichola’s mother became a WRVS volunteer when she retired as a nurse from Sheffield’s Jessop Hospital.
“I loved to hear about the stories she had to tell and I felt that I wanted to give something back because I’d spent time in hospital.
“I first started by working in the WRVS shop in the Hallamshire hospital. It was separate from the cafe next door and then it amalgamated into one and I worked in the cafe for a while. But there came a time when I wanted to do something else within the voluntary service and that’s when my manager told me that Good Neighbours was starting.”
Nichola has found befriending to be greatly rewarding.
“We visit people who are lonely and who need help looking after a loved one so they can have some time to themselves. I think you have to have a certain degree of caring and patience.
“I visit one of my neighbours and I’ve just started working with a new client who I get on really well with. It’s so rewarding, knowing that at the end of the day you have made that person happy because a lot of them don’t see anyone all week. One couple treats us as if we are long lost friends - it’s nice and makes you feel good. People say that I have a bubbly nature and that I have come out of my shell a bit.
“One of the ladies I visit, her husband is in a care home, and she has now adapted to living on her own. Just by me and my colleagues going in, we have noticed a significant change in how happy she is.”
The needs of her clients’ vary. Nichola visits one couple where the husband suffers with Parkinson’s disease. Nichola takes the man’s wife to visit her mother, who is in her 90s, and to the shops, while a colleague looks after her husband. Another woman has anxiety problems and with the help of volunteers, she is able to go for a coffee or visit a garden centre.
“I don’t think there is enough help for older people who suffer from loneliness and need support. I think loneliness needs more publicity because people are living longer and the problem could get worse.”
How to become a Good Neighbour
Becoming a volunteer is a simple process, says Paul Taylor, RVS area manager for South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and York.
“To begin with we find out what their areas of interest and expertise are so we match them up with an older person’s interests. We also have a get a Disclosure and Barring Service check done (formerly known as CRB checks) and ask for two references. Once they’re signed up we put them through basic training and after that we meet up on a regular basis to check how they are doing. To a large degree anyone can do it and we have so many different opportunities. It doesn’t have to be someone who wants to be put in a befriending situation, we also have administration, fundraising, research and recruitment roles. We look for a commitment of at least an hour a week.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for the RVS can call 0845 6080122.