Lonely this Christmas?
Monday 1st December
Not everyone spends the festive period with friends or family. Here, we find out about the volunteers bringing together isolated people from the Bristol area.
During some particularly snowy weather, four years ago, Bristol resident Amy Perrin was finding it difficult to get to the shops. If she was having problems with everyday tasks, she wondered how older members of the community might be coping. So she got in touch with Contact the Elderly – and, on discovering there wasn't a group in her local area, she resolved to set one up herself.
Contact the Elderly is a national charity that combats loneliness and social isolation among older people. Guests are invited to a Sunday tea party once a month, and are driven there and back by volunteers. Other volunteers take it in turns to host an afternoon tea in their homes.
Amy is an NHS occupational therapist and she asked fellow healthcare professionals and GP surgeries in her local area about older patients who might benefit from this sort of social contact.
“We started off with just a couple and now we have eight regular group members,” says Amy. “It's going really well - we meet up once a month for tea and occasionally we have quizzes or themed parties. Everyone chats away and is so friendly now; it's just like meeting up with a group of friends.”
The volunteer hosts and drivers came together through word of mouth or via Contact the Elderly's recruitment campaigns, says Amy. “People have been so kind, giving up a couple of hours to host a tea party or to pick people up. Once you've done one, you're hooked, and most people come every month as they love it so much. It's such a lovely group!
Christmas is coming
For most of the group, their family either lives far away – some as far afield as Australia or Canada – or they are widowed and have no children. As a result, that all-important social contact had been missing until they started attending the monthly tea parties.
“I think from a health point of view there have been massive benefits,” Amy observes. “I'm passionate about social interaction reducing loneliness generally, and that's how I came to think about doing something for them at Christmas.”
As 2012 was drawing to a close, it became clear that three of her regular tea party guests had nowhere to go on Christmas Day. Amy made some enquiries and found a lunch hosted by the Salvation Army – the only daytime event she could find in the area. “It was great, as they had somewhere to go and they really enjoyed it, but it didn't quite meet their needs,” says Amy.
And, so last year, she vowed to take them out for lunch herself. As word started to spread, the numbers began to grow. A pharmacist referred a lonely customer, and a Macmillan nurse put Amy in touch with a cancer patient who was facing Christmas alone for the fifth year in a row.
Amy's restaurant booking crept up to 18 in the end, with the costs generously covered by Waitrose's social isolation fund. The supermarket also donated gifts of wine, Christmas puddings, chocolate cake and biscuits – for some guests their first Christmas present in 10 years.
This inaugural lunch was such a success that Amy is planning to host a second one this Christmas, with a reservation for 30. Guests are currently being recruited by Amy's physiotherapist and district nurse colleagues. Meanwhile, Amy has set up Marmalade Trust to pay for it, and she and her fellow volunteers have been busy raising money.
“Our fundraising theme is selling handmade Christmas tree decorations, which is great being an occupational therapist, because we love doing crafty stuff,” she laughs. “We're selling them at local events to help us pay for everything.”
Amy now has 19 volunteers signed up to help on the day itself, including families who've offered to volunteer together. She says her own family, based in Brighton, are resigned to not seeing her at Christmas “and enjoy seeing all the photos”.
We wish Amy, her guests and fellow volunteers at the Marmalade Trust a very Merry Christmas!
Contact the Elderly supports the isolated throughout the year, not just at Christmas. The charity's website has an interactive map allowing you to search for a group in your area, with links for becoming a volunteer or a Guest.