‘We spend hours laughing’ How befriending an elderly person can change their life

Fiona Beer, 65, found a rewarding way to spend her retirement...
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  • In these daunting times, it’s important to remember the sheer impact loneliness, and being trapped indoors, can have on your wellbeing and others. Befriending an elderly person really can change their life...

    As the country is in lockdown, it’s even more important to consider what this must be like for our elderly citizens. Charities such as Independent Age and Age Concern have long-established befriending services, to help combat loneliness. Although face to face contact isn’t an option right now, it is still possible to arrange regular phone calls.

    We chatted to volunteer Fiona Beer and her new friend Peter, to hear about their most unlikely – but most rewarding – friendship…

    Once a fortnight, Fiona settles down next to the phone with a steaming cup of tea. She’d usually be in a sparklingly clean living room in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

    The heating would be on, meaning it’s always warm and cosy, and for two and a half hours, she’d be ready to chat with her friend Peter, 81. It’s a routine they’ve had for the last five years, and not one they plan to change any time soon – even with the current climate. They just settle with a phonecall, instead.

    It all started after Fiona took redundancy from her job as a psychology tutor at her local sixth-form college, back in 2013.

    ‘I’d taken some time to myself, but I decided I wanted something else to focus on. Volunteering was something I’d always wanted to do, but with a job, two children and grandchildren, I hadn’t had the time,’ she explains.

    ‘My father was a GP and my mum was a nurse, so I’m from a caring background. I was the youngest of six and because my parents were both incredibly busy, there were two older ladies, Auntie Agnes and Auntie Elsie, among others, who helped to bring us up.

    ‘As we and they grew older, our roles swapped, and we often had them over to stay with us, or took them out on trips. It was in their memory that I decided to apply to Independent Age in 2014.’

    Independent Age is a charity that provides a friendship service to relieve loneliness and isolation in older people, via phone calls, visits and telephone discussion groups, to help them feel more connected to their community.

    After DBS checks and training with the charity, Fiona was ready. With the help of another volunteer, she was introduced to Peter, then 76, in December 2014.

    ‘We met at his home for a cup of tea,’ Fiona remembers. Peter had spent the last few years caring for his wife Deirdree after she was diagnosed with dementia. She’d been in and out of hospital before she was eventually admitted to a care home, and Peter had done everything for her.

    ‘Without Deirdree to focus on, he seemed quite lost, and lonely,’ Fiona says. ‘Luckily, I’m quite a chatty person, and we seemed to hit it off quite quickly.’

    As the pair got to know each other, Fiona realised how down Peter seemed.

    ‘Deirdree was his soulmate, the love of his life. He’d spent so long in their home, doing everything he could to look after his wife, or visiting her in hospital. He missed her desperately. And being indoors for so long meant he’d lost his confidence when it came to going out.’

    Sadly, Deirdree passed away in March 2015.

    ‘Peter was understandably distraught,’ Fiona says. In fact, he even confided to Fiona that he’d considered taking his own life.

    ‘Of course, that was a very difficult time,’ Fiona admits. ‘But I’d received training from the charity, and working as a psychology tutor had equipped me with some of the skills to talk through these issues. And, of course, I made sure he made an appointment with a doctor, so he could get some professional help, too.’

    As time went on, Peter started to feel better and his fortnightly visits with Fiona were something they both looked forward to.

    ‘Peter talked to me about his childhood, his work life, his marriage to Deirdree and his family. Sharing his memories really made him smile. And we had plenty of lively debate, too,’ Fiona laughs.

    ‘Let’s just say we have differing opinions on some topics. But it makes for good conversation. Peter is very intelligent and while we often agree to disagree, he has taught me a thing or two.’

    Eventually, Fiona persuaded Peter to accompany her on a day trip.

    ‘I took him to a local community centre that puts on activities for elderly people – things like bingo and musical performances.’

    It was the first time Peter had done anything that was truly for himself in years.

    ‘The next week, he went back there by himself. I felt so proud of him, especially when he told me he’d got the bus there and back. Since then, he’s been going regularly, and has even arranged a little singing group there. It’s so great to see him come out of his shell.’

    Over the years, Fiona and Peter have become firm friends. For his 80th birthday, Fiona treated Peter to afternoon tea.

    ‘I think he enjoyed himself a lot,’ Fiona says. ‘It’s been so lovely getting to know him, he’s an incredible man. He’s always looking out for me, making sure I’ve got enough tea, or asking me if I’m warm enough. His house is always completely spotless, too.’

    Peter (older person) and Fiona Beer (volunteer), who have been brought together through Independent Age?s befriending service

    Going forward, Fiona plans to continue her visits to Peter.

    ‘I get as much out of it as he does,’ she says. ‘And if I’ve been able to help in even the smallest way with his confidence, then I’m really happy about that.

    ‘I think it’s so important to make sure we look after the elderly people in our community. People don’t realise how loneliness can affect a person, especially

    if it’s because they’ve lost a loved one that they’ve spent the majority of their life with.’

    ‘I’d recommend volunteering to anyone. It’s very rewarding and there are a lot of people who need company – a cup of tea and a biscuit, and a chat.’

    Peter, 81, says…

    ‘I lost Deirdree in 2015. Without her, the family didn’t feel complete. I was pleased to have my daughter’s company, but it felt like something was missing. The first few Christmases after she died were so painful. I still miss her. On one or two occasions, I felt so bad that I thought about ending my life.

    ‘It’s so lovely to have Fiona visiting me. She’s not a counsellor, but she is someone I can chat to and who encourages me. We spend hours just laughing. If I bump into my neighbour, he notices the change in my mood and says, “You’ve had company today.” When I feel down, Fiona cheers me up. It’s a joy when she arrives at the house or gives me a call.’

    For more information visit Independent Age. To speak to an adviser, call the charity’s Freephone Helpline on 0800 319 6789. Or, contact Age UK – or give them a call on Freephone 0800 678 1602.