Why volunteering for older people at the loneliest time of year is the best Christmas present you can give

Around 200,000 older people will spend the festive period alone. As a volunteer, I know that meaningful conversation and regular support goes a long way

David Bell
Monday 16 December 2019 13:44
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After a period of juggling full-time work and part-time study, I felt burnt out and in need of a break. I wanted to use my free time to volunteer and give back to my local community. I came across Age UK Lewisham and Southwark and asked if they had any volunteering opportunities. I know that older people can feel lonely, vulnerable and isolated and lack much needed support. I wanted to volunteer locally so I could feel like I was helping the people on my doorstep.

They needed help with their day centre activities for older people with dementia and having worked in customer service, I felt comfortable talking to anyone regardless of age or background, so I knew I’d be fine having a chat and a joke. I wasn’t sure exactly what else to expect. I was prepared for plenty of tea and biscuits. While I did have my fill of custard creams, my experience with Age UK Lewisham and Southwark was so much richer. I had the privilege of getting to know some brilliant older people, and play a small role in supporting them and their families.

As a volunteer, my duty is to welcome older people to the centre, get them a simple breakfast, serve lunch and help with an activity like bingo or crafts. It might seem like simple stuff but the older people love their visits to the day centre. The staff are incredibly welcoming and help us feel comfortable and supported when volunteering, and there are full-time carers on hand to help as well.

Building relationships with older people has been the best part of volunteering. One of the visitors, Alfred*, has never managed to remember my name but after volunteering for a few months, he’d welcome me with a big smile. He knew I was a friendly face and (I know it sounds corny) but it meant so much to me.

Alfred can get easily distressed and be in tears through confusion and frustration because of his dementia. He keeps a special book of memories with him with photos of his family and his former work as a designer. On one of his good days, we sat together for two hours and he talked me through all of his memories, and the awards he’d won for his designs. It felt like an honour to find out more about him as a person and his career. Alfred was calm and contented when his wife Penny* came to collect him, and she was so grateful that I’d taken the time to sit with him. The day centre offers much-needed relief to Penny and other carers. I felt like I’d helped both of them that day.

Volunteering with people with dementia brings its ups and downs. Conversations can go round in circles, and you can hear the same stories over and over again. Some older people need support for the most simple of tasks like putting their plate away. Patience is definitely key – it can be too easy to rush people or finish their sentences, but it means a lot to the older person to do it themselves or make their own decisions. Overall, it’s incredibly rewarding. Especially at this time of year, when around 200,000 older people will spend Christmas alone.

It sounds typical, but I really do get a buzz out of volunteering – you feel good after having helped someone, even in a small way. It might only be a bit of tea and toast, but to them, it’s a kind gesture from a welcoming person. I feel lucky that I’ve had the time to give back to my local community. I hope that, if I make it to 80 or if I get dementia, someone will take the time to be kind to me one day.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the author and individuals mentioned.

Last year Age UK found that more than 2.5 million older people have no one to turn to for help and support. Anyone interested in helping to support older people in their local area and around the country – whether by volunteering, donating or campaigning – can find out more at www.ageuk.org.uk/get-involved/.

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