This week, as part of the Times campaign with Age NI to increase benefit uptake for older people, we highlight another vital service provided by the charity that improves the lives of older people in the borough.
Una Mulgrew explains her role as Befriending Coordinator and how the initiative can be life-changing for older people and volunteers:
Age NI Befriending is a three-year project, supported by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and other funders including AES Kilroot and Larne, which helps older people throughout the boroughs of Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Larne.
I help older people at risk of loneliness and social isolation by assigning a befriender to provide friendly conversation and companionship on a weekly basis. This is a vital relationship that promotes confidence, improves health and wellbeing, offers practical help and access to other valuable services like benefits checks.
Befrienders are volunteers who spend a few hours per week being a friend to an older person by visiting them at home, taking them to a local garden centre, cinema, or for a walk. Some people, who can’t or don’t wish to go outside or meet anyone, prefer to chat on the phone.
We receive referrals from the Age NI advice team, GPs, community groups and social workers. An older person can also self refer to the service. Many people who do this have family and friends. However, they’re still lonely and enjoy the company and listening ear of their weekly friend.
In a recent survey, we found that over 60 per cent of people who’ve been part of the project for over three months accessed other Age NI services including a benefits check.
A benefits check is an important part of the service. I will often ask if an older person is getting the benefits they’re entitled to. One lonely older lady who I visited recently told me that she’s going to call the advice line after reading about the Times and Age NI campaign to increase benefit uptake for older people.
A successful benefit check could, on average, provide up to £62 per week in additional financial support to an older person. Many people I meet on a daily basis just don’t know they’re entitled to other benefits like Pension Credit. This extra money could make a huge difference to their lives by reducing poverty, isolation and help them get out more.
During my visits I let people know about local events, craft activities and local groups in their area. I find that many older people have low self esteem and self confidence and many have no way of getting to or from an activity or event. They often lack the confidence to walk into a room by themselves. Sometimes I’ll go with them.
I try to encourage older people to get in touch with other older people who live nearby. A group of five from the project now attend a church function together, sit at the same table and talk to each other.
I only hear positive comments about the service and that’s why it’s such a lovely job. Many older people greatly benefitted from going to our Christmas party. One lady who is confined to a wheelchair, and hasn’t been out of the house for years, told me it was her only social outing for a very long time.
Another older woman, who had struggled with a life of isolation before she got involved with the project, told me: ‘I haven’t been outside for 14 years. I had difficulty speaking because I spent every day on my own without speaking to anyone’. It was wonderful to see her up dancing and laughing and, as she was leaving, she said: ‘I have friends now.’
It’s a helpful service for other family members. One older woman, who is alone because her family lives far away, spoke to her son on the phone after the party and he said: ‘You sound like who’ve won the lottery?’.
She replied: ‘It’s because I’ve been out for the day with Age NI and had a great time.’
The befriending relationship must also be an enjoyable experience for the volunteer.
One volunteer accompanied an older woman, who has suffered mental health issues over the course of her adult life, on a trip down Memory Lane to her childhood area to reminisce. She told me: ‘We enjoyed a light lunch and a brief shopping trip. This was the first time the lady had been out to do her own shopping in over three years. I realise that progress will be slow, but together we have taken steps for the older person to attend local group activities in her sheltered dwelling. It’s a big step in the right direction and a positive contribution to improving her health and wellbeing.’
Peer volunteers, aged 55 and over, are especially welcome to join the Age NI Befriending Service. Anyone who wishes to self-refer can contact Una on 0743 596 0543 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.