How the hand of friendship is stopping loneliness in its tracks across Yorkshire

They describe themselves as a '˜double-act' - best friends, neighbours and a formidable fundraising duo.

Best Friends Kath Copeland and Dorothy Lunn Picture by Simon Hulme

But a pair of friends from Leeds who know life can be lonely for people in their later years are encouraging people to join friendship groups that have helped hundreds of thousands of people across Yorkshire form friendships over the last 200 years.

Kath Copeland, 72, is secretary of one of the two Oddfellows groups in Leeds. Oddfellows was founded as a traditional Friendly Society for workers in 1810, but grew into friendship organisation, organising days out, coffee mornings and events.

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It has branches across Yorkshire, including in Bradford, Halifax, Hull, Skipton, Holmfirth, Sheffield and Huddersfield, and this September is reaching out the hand of friendship to new members with a series of special events for its Friendship Month.

Best Friends Kath Copeland and Dorothy Lunn Picture by Simon Hulme

Mrs Copeland is encouraging anyone who might be feeling lonely to come along – and she says they needn’t be elderly.

She said: “The Oddfellows did some research last year showing how much young and old like spending time together, so some of our branches are making a real effort to attract younger members, with go-karting, clay-pigeon shooting and paintballing – so we’re not just about bingo and beetle drives.”

Mrs Copeland, 72, of Meanwood, attends Oddfellows events along with her best friend and next door neighbour Dorothy Lunn, 71.

The Yorkshire Post has been campaigning to highlight the issue of loneliness and social isolation since February 2014.

Best Friends Kath Copeland and Dorothy Lunn Picture by Simon Hulme

While Mrs Copeland is happily married to husband Peter, his passion for gardening means she could easily find herself lonely without the company of friends.

Mrs Copeland said: “People joke about golf widows – I suppose I’m an allotment widow. But last year three of our friends lost their husbands so I know how difficult genuine widowhood is and how lucky I am.”

The friends met 12 years ago at Roscoe Methodist church in Chapeltown, where they helped raise cash for roof repairs. They then went on to help build a diabetes clinic in Jamaica. Now they aim to raise between £4,000 and £5,000 a year to support the national children’s air ambulance charity, while also knitting clothes for premature babies at Leeds General Infirmary.

While Ms Lunn says the friends are “too busy” to be lonely, she says her friendship with the Copelands has been invaluable.

Ms Lunn, who never married, spent much of her life as a carer for elderly parents. When they died and the bungalow next door to the Copelands came up for sale seven years ago, she bought it.

She said: “Kath and Peter have been so kind to me over the years and they encouraged me to move closer. It’s the best decision I ever made. We keep each other company and we do a lot at the Oddfellows to encourage others who might be lonely to come and join in our activities.”

Research has long shown the value of friendship. Scientists at York University found that those with close friends are less likely to suffer heart disease or strokes, while a study in the British Journal of Psychology earlier this year found that social interaction helps guard against depression and reduces stress.

Oddfellows spokesperson Dawn Walters said the pair’s friendship was typical of the many thousands of members who build lasting friendships at the groups.

She said: “A surprising number of people get divorced later in life – once the children have grown up and fled the nest – and of course many men and women find themselves widowed. So loneliness is a huge problem for this age group. It’s not something we talk about much. But we are conscious about the challenge of loneliness in wider society and each September we go out of our way to try to welcome new members and make new friends.”