It's a sad fact that as people get older, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to stay socially active. Children fly the nest, and friends and loved ones grow old and can either start to pass away, or move away to be closer to their own children.
Health issues that physically keep people housebound are in many instances just as serious an impediment to getting out and about as anxiety can be - the worry that something might happen outside keeps many people indoors.
So is there any wonder that according to Age UK, around a million older people regularly go a month without social contact? And how, according to the Silver Line, around five million people consider the TV to be their main form of company?
With research showing that social interaction helps prevent dementia setting in, the real question is what can we all do to help combat loneliness in older people.
To combat this, Age UK arrange a befriending service for lonely older people all around the country, and they're always looking for volunteers.
If you're outgoing, chatty, or simply want to be able to make a difference to a lonely person, befriending could be the answer.
It's fairly self-explanatory; you take an hour or so every week to visit a housebound older person in order to alleviate their loneliness and boredom.
In essence, you become their friend - and although it might be strange at first to start visiting someone you've never met, in time you probably will become firm friends.
Once you've decided to make a difference, you can either get in touch with your local volunteering service, or go directly to Age UK.
You'll need to get a DBS check, to ensure that you don't have a criminal record - unsurprisingly, as you'll be visiting a potentially very vulnerable person.
You'll probably be interviewed too, not only to check that you're the right person for this type of volunteering role, but also to try to match you up with someone who shares a similar outlook on life, interests or beliefs.
Unexpected benefits for you
If you speak to anyone who has decided to become a befriender, the overwhelming response you'll get is how much volunteering in this way has benefited the befriender themselves.
Taking time out of your busy life to enjoy a cup of tea with someone who looks forward to your arrival can do wonders for your mood, but not only that - you'll learn new things, see the world through different eyes, and probably wind up with a friend whose company you value as much as they value yours.
How to be a a good befriender
This handful of tips could help you to make the most of your befriending experience.
Your befriendee will probably have hundreds of stories to tell you, stories that they may not have been able to tell in years, so you might end up hearing the same ones again and again, or a few to which the end might have been forgotten.
But try not to finish the story for them, or hurry them along - one of the huge benefits of your company is that it's a reason to remember and discuss their past with a new person, which is thought to help stave off dementia.
Additionally, they might forget when you last came round and berate you for not coming often enough, but remind them pleasantly when you last popped over and remember, they’re only grumpy because your company means the world to them. But on that note...
Keep your promises
Think seriously about what you'll be able to offer.
Don't get carried away with the novelty and promise five hours a week, when realistically you'll only be able to pop in for a cup of tea on a Saturday morning - the person you're befriending will probably come to rely on your visits and you don't want to let them down.
Be honest from the start with what you're able to offer, and you'll both know where you stand.
Remember, for you an hour with your new friend is just one element of your busy week; for them it could be the beacon of hope they wait for every day.
Our five top ways to volunteer in retirement
Commit... but don't overcommit
Try not to get sucked into doing odd jobs and housework - it's a natural impulse to want to help, but if you set a precedent, once again they might get reliant on you and the lines between 'befriender' and 'helper' might become blurred.
Remember that your reason for visiting is to chat and keep them company, no more.
Of course, if after many years of friendship, you start doing the same things you would do for any of your friends or family, then don't hold back - just consider avoiding doing small chores until a real foundation of friendship has formed.
10 rules of successful friendship
You aren't supposed to sit quietly whilst your befriendee waxes lyrically about the good old days - it's supposed to be a conversation, not a monologue or a therapy session.
Share as many details about your personal life as you're comfortable doing; that way you might end up getting good advice, or at least a different perspective on any issues troubling you, as well as someone who'll rejoice in your good news.
That said, it should go both ways - make sure you leave having listened to them tell you about their week.
And if conversation takes a while to start flowing, take along a board game, pack of cards or jigsaw puzzle – often sitting in companionable silence is enjoyable as conversation.
Get ready to feel good
You might not expect just how fond you'll get of the person waiting for your visit.
Odds are you'll quickly develop a routine with them - perhaps putting the kettle on as soon as you get in, or discussing the news, or joking about a sports team - but that routine will become as dear to you as it is to them.
Taking a moment out of your life to be truly altruistic and help a fellow human in need with something as simple and basic as companionship tends to have far-reaching benefits that extend beyond the hour or so you share a cup of tea and a biscuit.
You'll feel better, and they'll feel better, and because of you, the world will be a slightly better place.
A word from a befriending expert
Nikki Holt, Befriending & Volunteer Co-ordinator at the Volunteer Centre Shepway, says “Befrienders are special people who are kind, patient and compassionate. Our scheme at Volunteer Centre Shepway only asks for a commitment of an hour a week.
“An hour is a very small request in comparison to the positive impact a befriender can make to someone’s life, especially if they are experiencing loneliness and have little social contact with the outside world. It may sound simple, but it really can make a huge impact.
“Many of the relationships have been running for a number of years and people really do become true friends. They are very much two-way relationships. Wisdom is shared and fascinating life stories swapped.
“Each year we receive so many positive comments from both befrienders and clients about the impact the service has on them. We have a very diverse group of people involved. Currently our befrienders are aged early thirties to mid-eighties and we have two clients aged 101!”
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