New research from Age UK has found that around 1.4 million older people will have experienced loneliness this Christmas, a situation likely to be exacerbated by fears over the Omicron variant.

The Good Neighbors service, the Kent Coast Volunteering friendship project, helps tackle loneliness by matching volunteers with older people in the community, such as Rhys griffiths reports.

Maurice Jones, who lives in Sandgate, befriended volunteer John Steed

Sitting with Maurice Jones, a former NHS hospital manager, in his manicured Sandgate living room, you can tell by his smile how much he enjoys the company.

But the 93-year-old man, who moved to assisted living after his wife’s death, is happy to admit that – especially during confinement – “white days” spent alone can weigh heavily on those who live alone.

Lucky for Maurice, who has a daughter living in Folkestone, there is support nearby – and thanks to the Good Neighbors program he has been able to make new friendships with volunteers from Kent Coast Volunteering (KCV).

“I lost my wife just before I came here,” he said of his move from retirement to Hythe to his new home in Sandgate.

“My doctor contacted the Folkestone Volunteer Center and asked them to find me a friend.

“I have visited Maurice every week or two since then, and we have found that we are getting along …”

“I had a request for information on myself and so on, and after a while they very kindly found someone who ‘matched me’, so to speak, because he had an interest and an experience similar to mine.

“I was fortunate to have a man who had been the chief paramedic, and I had spent about 40 years in the health service. So between us we had a lot in common, which made it a lot easier, and then unfortunately he passed away last year. “

Today Maurice is paired with John Steed, a 71-year-old former construction worker from Cheriton, who sought out opportunities to volunteer in the community after his retirement.

John explains that due to Covid restrictions their first interactions were a weekly phone call, but as the lockdown eased the couple were able to meet outside and eventually visit each other’s homes.

He said: “In the summer we had a few visits to my house in the garden, then I went to see Maurice every week or two since then, and we found that we got along.

Maurice Jones enjoys the friendship service of Kent Coast Volunteering
Maurice Jones enjoys the friendship service of Kent Coast Volunteering

“I don’t really think of it as so much helping now as going to someone. “

Maurice and John both hope that by sharing their experience of friendship service, they can encourage more volunteers to come forward and be matched with an older person at the local level.

KCV operates this program along the East Kent Coast from Hythe to Thanet, and in addition to offering a friend to speak to the service, it can also help people with purchases, paperwork and other tasks. which can start to be more difficult as people get older. .

Katy Murray, who coordinates the Good Neighbors Project for KCV, says finding people to volunteer their time has become more difficult since the start of the pandemic.

“There has been a shortage of nominations recently,” she said. “Partly because I think people are afraid of Covid themselves, so they don’t come out as much as they used to.

Katy Murray, right, receives an award for the Kent Coast Volunteering Anthology project.  Image: South Kent Mind
Katy Murray, right, receives an award for the Kent Coast Volunteering Anthology project. Image: South Kent Mind

“But also because many people who volunteered are now caring for their own parents and vulnerable relatives and friends.”

In October, the KCV team was recognized for their work during the pandemic when they won an innovation award at the Kent Mental Health and Wellbeing Awards for their Anthology project.

Taking the form of a book and an exhibition at the Léas Elevator, it brought together words and images capturing the experience of users of the Bon Voisin Service during confinement.

The stories reinforce the importance of connection and during the holiday season, a time when many people experience terrible loneliness, they show why KCV is so keen for more people to come forward and give their time to form a friendship with an older person in the community.

“It’s very nice to know that there will be someone coming to see you at least once a week,” said Maurice.

“Unfortunately, until you get older yourself, you don’t realize what might be to come.… ”

“It might not seem like a lot, but once a week is pretty important. Because if you have too many white days, so to speak, it can get a little boring and I think some people could be very depressed.

“Unfortunately, until you get older yourself you don’t realize what might be to come, and while you are reasonably young and active you have a life of your own to lead.

“So you don’t have the same kind of relationship with people who have unfortunately reached the point in their lives where they’re starting to be cut off from things.”

To learn more about the Good Neighbors Service and how to get involved, click here