Charities: Outings make Christmas last all year: Joanna Gibbon looks at Contact, a voluntary group that gives the frail and elderly a social life

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The Independent Online
Goodwill gestures to charities come thick and fast at this time of year but for volunteers of one charity December is like any other month. In fact many describe Contact as bringing Christmas 12 times a year to the elderly and frail people it helps.

Based on the simplest of ideas - taking a group of elderly, lonely people, often mostly women, from the same area out to tea at a different venue every four weeks - Contact has been operating in its quiet way for the last 27 years.

Trevor Lyttleton, its founder, was struck by the extreme loneliness of his neighbours in Marylebone during the 1960s. 'I was a bachelor, leading a fairly selfish life but not feeling terribly fulfilled. Without being holier than thou I knew that across the road there were people living in these tenements and I wondered how they survived; I was terribly ignorant.'

He and a group of friends contacted the then Marylebone Welfare Association to see if they could take a group of elderly people out to tea to a hotel. They were quickly told that it could not be a single, random gesture.

'If you take people out you don't just drop them. Too many people think that an annual charabanc outing is sufficient but in fact that can reinforce the loneliness: someone who is given a one-off treat and returns to four bare walls with nothing on the calendar gets a little despondent, to say the least,' Mr Lyttleton said.

The first tea party was a great success and the present formula was gradually devised. The average person to join a group is about 80 or older, lives alone and might have children who live miles away and who may contact them by telephone once a month and visit them twice a year. They will probably be getting home help and meals-on-wheels twice a week, and they might go to a day centre once a week. They spend much of their time on their own.

A volunteer host provides tea, and a room large enough for 10-12 people and almost the same number of volunteer drivers, one Sunday afternoon, once a year. A downstairs lavatory is essential, as is a lift if the host's home is an upstairs flat. Over the years the young children of volunteers have grown up and started hosting teas themselves.

Volunteer drivers, the majority of whom are aged between 30 and 60, are committed to more: once a month they collect one or two people from their homes - local groups are organised so that no one lives too far away from each other - and drive them to a different venue each time. After tea they take them home. Now there are more than 190 groups and 4,000 volunteers in the UK.

Originally one of the ideas behind the charity was to encourage the young to help the old. 'We got a lot of volunteers who came along wanting to meet other young people - and the motives are immaterial as long as they are committed to doing what they are doing' Mr Lyttleton said.

He reckons that Contact served as an excellent marriage bureau in London as well. Once, five volunteers married five other volunteers all in the same group.

In the early days not all the trips turned out as planned. 'One old man, a volunteer driver of tremendous character, didn't turn up for an outing. When we arrived at Epsom we got a message from him to say that he had gone with Jenny - his very young and beautiful volunteer - to pick up the old people but they couldn't make it so instead he had taken Jenny to the Playboy Club for tea,' said Mr Lyttleton, laughing.

In spite of its success Mr Lyttleton would like to see Contact expanding faster than it is: 'I am pleased that we are still making a contribution but I am sorry that it is so small considering the vast and growing problem. What distresses me is that Manchester, a big city, has no Contact group at all.' He feels that both time and the expense of petrol discourage people from coming forward as volunteers.

Alan Sheppard, who has been a volunteer group leader - a person who runs and organises a group, the most demanding volunteer position of all - for the Islington group for the last 15 years, became involved after his mother died. 'I had been in the habit of going to see her in Hampshire every other weekend and I felt I wanted to do something. It is very satisfying knowing that you are alleviating the loneliness. They certainly do look forward to the afternoons.'

Mr Sheppard's group often goes quite far afield, to Hertfordshire or Surrey, in the summer. Some hosts have superb gardens and pets, both of which are a novelty and a treat for many of the elderly. The group always drives in convoy: 'We lose each other at lights but everyone can help if someone wants to go to the lavatory or is feeling ill.'

Not all venues are at people's homes: an annual November visit to a primary school in Ealing is very popular. Carols are sung, a nativity play is staged, everyone sits at tiny desks and afterwards the children eagerly press sandwiches and cakes on their guests.

Sometimes a newcomer to the group might take a little persuasion before joining, being terrified at the thought of going out. But gradually relationships build up: 'They are quite game once you get to know them and they get to know you. We have fun: you can say what you like and they say what they like which is nice,' Mr Sheppard said.

Because of this, many volunteers become more involved with their charges. Visits when they are ill, shopping expeditions, birthday and Christmas cards are all commonplace. Two weeks ago several groups, including Mr Sheppard's, got together and had a Christmas lunch, involving 20 helpers, 45 guests and a 22lb turkey.

Even though the entertainer failed to turn up at the party Mary Baxter, a sprightly 79-year-old and a former volunteer with Contact, thoroughly enjoyed herself: 'It was a lovely meal, we played bingo and pass the parcel. I love chatting to everyone and having a bit of a sing-song. I was sitting next to a man who is nearly blind and has three children living in London who never come to see him. It is astonishing. Many people look forward to Contact, often it is their only way of getting out.'

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