It’s no secret that loneliness exists in our world – but there are people, charities, and initiatives fighting hard to help combat it. One of those is b:friend, which pairs individuals with elderly neighbours to make connections and receive companionship.
Stats show the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years. In fact, half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. That’s what Mike Niles hoped to change when he set up b:Friend in 2017.
Mike had been living in London and was volunteering for another charity in 2017. After moving back to south Yorkshire, he noticed a need for befrienders in Doncaster. And from there, it spiralled. The charity now covers all of south Yorkshire.
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The premise is quite simple: volunteer befrienders pledge to visit a socially isolated older neighbour near them for one hour per week for a cuppa and a chat. On the way back from work, the shops, dropping the kids at school – whenever is convenient, a befriender will spend an hour just chatting, listening and supporting someone that otherwise may have no one.
The charity pairs individuals primarily based on locality and also make connections based on personal interests. Each befriender and older neighbour receive regular support to ensure they’re benefitting from the project. Since it launched, b:Friend has created, delivered and evaluated hundreds of hours of community social group activity in Doncaster.
“Social connection is vital to older people,” Rayelle Broomhead, a project officer at b:friend, tells Smiley News. “Many have lost partners, poor health or mobility may have restricted their ability to leave their home, some have no family or limited connection with them.
“Social isolation has been associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia and can lead to a significantly increased risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Company has a huge positive impact on a person’s mental health – the team at b:friend sees this all of the time.”
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Rayelle says she regularly speaks to people referred to the charity, who are feeling incredibly low before they’re paired. “I speak to them a little while after they have a befriender and the difference is huge,” she says. “Only today a lady referred to her befriender as a delight to her ears, stating that she looks forward to every call and how it brightens her day.
“It is a privilege to witness that. Many of our pairings are life changing for the older people referred to us. We currently have a gentleman in hospital, who previously wouldn’t have had a single visitor. Our volunteer (who sees herself as a friend, not a volunteer) has been visiting him whenever possible and has been phoning him every day.”
Rayelle says if anyone is inspired to sign up, “I would say that they may be surprised how much they will get from doing so”.
“Countless numbers of volunteers have said this, that they are surprised how they benefit as much as the older person,” she says. “The relationship between a befriender and an older neighbour is quite unique. Neither know other people in one another’s lives so they will talk about all kinds of things knowing there will be no judgement.
“They learn about the differences in society in different generations. True friendships grow. The charity asks volunteers to commit to an hour of their time a week. One hour that has such a significant impact on an older person who very often has nobody.”
Find out more at letsbfriend.org.uk.