The volunteers bringing an end to loneliness

As we mark a year since the launch of our Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, Lindsay Pantry meets those whose desire to help others makes a world of difference.

29 Jan 2015....As part of The YP Lonliness campaign reporter Lindsay Pantry spends time with the RVS in Barnsley.Audrey Hepinstall with befriender Ann Plant. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1006/91
29 Jan 2015....As part of The YP Lonliness campaign reporter Lindsay Pantry spends time with the RVS in Barnsley.Audrey Hepinstall with befriender Ann Plant. Picture Scott Merrylees SM1006/91

THE SNOW was falling thick and fast outside the Royal Voluntary Service’s Barnsley office.

Earlier in the morning, buses had been cancelled, an abandoned lorry had led to major tailbacks on one of the main routes into the area, and for a while it seemed the whole of the town was in danger of grinding to a wintery halt.

But not inside. There, frantic phone calls were being made to ensure each of the organisation’s volunteers set to visit an elderly or vulnerable person were able to get to where they needed to be.

“We can’t just stop, people are relying on us,” says Natalie Stokes, one of three inclusion officers on the Barnsley LOOP (Looking Out for Older People) project.

Funded by the local authority, the small team looks after 13 volunteer befrienders, and currently has 126 clients. Befriending itself is a huge part of Natalie’s job, and the bad weather cannot be allowed to interrupt appointments, as often, the weekly visits can be the only company the person receives all week.

Usually, Natalie gets the bus from the office at the Priory Campus and then walks the miles in between appointments, but today I drive. Our first stop is the Churchfield sheltered housing scheme to see 64-year-old Audrey, who is deaf and unable to speak.

Natalie’s visit usually involve a walk into town to help with shopping, communicating with Audrey mainly via a notebook. Having help from a befriender has given her back a vital sensee of independence, and this year she attended a Christmas Day lunch the RVS organised for people who would otherwise spend the day alone.

Natalie says: “She always has a smile on her face and she know she’s not doing things alone anymore.”

Natalie works with a number of women at the Churchfields complex, “who don’t really mix” with the others. One, who has lived there for 15 years, has just started to socialise after being encouraged by Natalie and similar breakthroughs have been seen by the organisation’s small army of volunteers.

At Churchfield we are joined by Ann Plant, 68, of Darton, who started as a befriender last year. She visits a number of people, including 94-year-old Betty, who has dementia. The visits are all the more poignant as her own mother, who lived in Liverpool, died from Alzheimer’s.

“I just wish she would have had someone like us going to see her,” says Mrs Plant. “She had carers visiting day and night, and family, but in between she was very lonely. With Betty, the pleasure is two-fold. She loves me visiting, and I get a lot from going to see her.”

From there we go upstairs to the flat belonging to Lily. The 92-year-old has felt increasingly lonely since her husband died in 2001. She comes alive during our visit, recalling funny stories from her childhood, but tells of how she felt “hemmed in” and so alone before the visits.

“My husband and I would go out all over the place, but when he died my health went and I stayed in. I got depressed,” she tells me. “I spend a lot of time by myself, so I look forward to the visits.”

The story is one often heard by the RVS as widows struggle to adjust when a lifetime of companionship comes to an end. Natalie and I then head across town to a private housing scheme, Joseph Court, to see another lady. Natalie was supposed to be accompanying her to a hospital appointment, and although it has been cancelled due to the weather, the visit hasn’t.

Befriending can be tough on volunteers, knowing where to draw a line, especially when a client has a health issue, but Natalie says there’s a real support network between workers and the volunteers, “We’re all a phone call away if they’re worried about someone.”

Graham Harris is the inclusion manager at the Barnsley RVS office. He needs double the number of volunteers to cope with demand. LOOP is funded until July 2016, and is building links with luncheon clubs, setting up activity groups and shifting visits so they increasingly involve social activities so that they can help people build new relationships.

He says: “It’s very often the simple things that make the biggest difference. If we give people the confidence to go to a lunch club and strike up a conversation, we’re doing our job properly. We’re trying to build sustainability, so eventually these people will be able to cope without us.”

Whether it’s an hour a week or an hour a day - every moment a volunteer gives can help an older person remain a vibrant member of their community, the country’s leading volunteering charity said.

The RVS has around 3,200 volunteers across Yorkshire, but desperately needs more if it is to reach all those in need and with all local authorities juggling ever decreasing budgets the volunteer sector is likely to be even further relied up on to bridge the gap.

Roles currently available with the RVS vary from those with one to one contact with older people, like befrienders and hospital visitors, to those which help the RVS run smoothly, like office support and volunteer speakers, who visit other groups and businesses to talk about the charity’s work.

The RVS’s head of support and development for East England, which includes Yorkshire, Paul Taylor says: “We know that there are many more people who need help than we have the resources to reach. Social care is changing, local authorities have less and less money to fund services, and the Government is clear that the third sector is key moving forward.

“There are all sorts of roles available that directly help isolated and lonely older people, and it doesn’t have to be a big commitment - for example some just speak to one person for 20 minutes a week, but it makes the world of difference.”

As part of the Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, The Yorkshire Post will be highlighting volunteering roles vacant in the region that need filling most over the coming weeks in the newspaper and our website, some of which are below.

Mr Taylor said he hoped seeing specific roles in the newspaper would “bring it home” to people where they might be able to help.

“There’s no substitute for people seeing it in the newspaper, seeing a need where they live, and making an enquiry,” he said: “There is a massive demand for volunteers. A lot of people are willing to do it, but just need a way in, If people come to us we have a conversation and see where they might fit.”

Volunteering opportunities

Ward befrienders, feeding and visiting: Needed in Sheffield to support patients with eating and drinking or just chatting and activities within a hospital setting.

Lunch Club plus volunteer: Wanted in East Sheffield. This new service support and enables people to regain their confidence so they can attend clubs on their own.

Volunteer driver: A car owner is required to drive a lady in her 80s for her cancer treatment in Grimsby.

Dementia support volunteer: Urgently required in Doncaster. Additional training in dementia is provided.

Fundraising volunteer: Required in all areas of Yorkshire to help raise funds to enable the RVS to continue its valuable work to support older people in the region.

For more information, or to express an interest in any of the roles above, call 0114 399 0086.

To find alternative volunteering roles in your area visit or call 0845 608 0122