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Friends across the generations

27 June 2014

We may be living longer, but we are also increasingly lonely. Huw Spanner considers how churches can respond to the needs of elderly people

Contact the Elderly

Izzy, a volunteer driver, walks Connie to the door of their host, ready for an afternoon of tea, chat, and company

Izzy, a volunteer driver, walks Connie to the door of their host, ready for an afternoon of tea, chat, and company

IT IS an obvious fact that none of us is getting any younger. It is a fact, too, that the general population is ageing. Statistics quoted by the website agebomb.com suggest that there are now - for the first time in history - more people aged over 65 in Britain than there are children under 13.

It is a global trend: over the next 30 years, the worldwide population of people aged 65 and older is set to rise from 9.7 million to 17 million - an increase of 76 per cent.

But, while most of us can expect to live longer, loneliness is seen as an increasing problem among the elderly. The Office of National Statistics states that half of all those aged 75 and above live alone; and polling by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in 2011 found that 370,000 people in that age bracket spend "zero hours" with other people in a typical day.

In health terms, social isolation is a killer - both of people and communities. The CSJ says that the health gains from having a high level of social support far outstrip those associated with abstinence from alcohol, having a lean BMI, or giving up smoking.

Tracey Robbins manages the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness, a three-year research programme launched in 2010, which explores the causes of loneliness and social isolation and identifies ways to increase neighbourliness through community activities and facilities.

"One of the key findings of [recent] research is that you are almost twice as likely to die prematurely if you are lonely," she says. "And when you become disconnected, the community loses you as an asset: you stop talking to your neighbour, and you don't engage with things around you. Isolation, really, is a double-edged sword."

IN MANY parts of the country, churches are already busy running regular lunch-clubs and coffee mornings. But they could do much more.

At Holy Trinity, Margate, three-course lunches are available for the elderly in its Community Resource Centre, four days a week; the church also provides friendship teas, afternoon excursions, armchair exercises, silver song clubs, line dancing, and Zumba gold classes for the active elderly. A minibus service is provided for those who need transport to and from the centre, and a befriending service for those who are isolated and housebound.

The chief executive of the faith-based charity Regenerate-RISE ("Reaching the Isolated Elderly"), the Revd Glyn Thomas, says that, often, "the attention of many churches is focused elsewhere. Look at any Christian website that advertises jobs. You will see adverts for children's workers, family workers, and youth workers, but no one is looking for a seniors' worker."

The origins of Regenerate-RISE go back to 2000, when a day-centre manager, Mo Smith, and her son recognised the need for a lunch club on the Alton Estate in the London borough of Wandsworth. The charity's work has greatly expanded since then, to include other projects in south and west London, Sheffield, and Nottingham.

It now offers home visits, activities, and outings designed to transform the lives of isolated older people through a programme of care and support which values and encourages independence in later life. It actively seeks partners to set up RISE projects across the country.

In tackling social isolation, "Faith groups have a key role to play,"Ms Robbins says. "As post offices, libraries, pubs, community centres, and day-care centres close, and the only other places where people can meet and build friendships and networks become venues for hire, it is absolutely crucial to have places where people are free to come and get to know other people where they live."

Facebook and Skype can reconnect some older people, she says, but the internet can accentuate loneliness as much as it can help to reduce it. "When we were researching this issue, one young woman told us: 'What we need is something like social networking - but physical.'"

FOR churches who want to do more for the elderly in their community, Mr Thomas advises: "First of all, look at your vision, and consider whether doing something for the elderly is something you should be doing. A church has got to have a heart for this. Then, ask yourself: Are there specific things the older people in our congregation would like to do? Rather than thinking you know what they want, it's best to ask.

"At present, we are providing services for the generation that went through the war, when there was a communal spirit that got people through the hard times; but the next generation to grow old will be quite different. When I hit 80, the music I remember from my youth will be glam rock and punk.

"Finally, do your research to make sure that you won't be duplicating, or competing against, what is already available."

In Eastbourne, one need that became obvious to Buddy Reeve, whose mother became a committed Christian at the age of 80, and moved into residential care a year later, was the lack of spiritual support available for older people in residential care. In response, Mrs Reeve became a care assistant in a home, and, once a month, with permission, brought in a church team to lead a service for residents.

The concept grew, and, in January 1997, Pastoral Action in Residential Care Homes for the Elderly (PARCHE) was launched, which now has 65 teams of volunteers, from 30 churches, who visit residential homes in the town.

The founder and former director Mrs Reeve says: "We have a paid co-ordinator to ensure that every care home in the town has the opportunity to have a team go in. Also, four times a year, we bring care residents out of their homes to a central church for a musical event - it may be worship, but may not be - and tea, which gives them a change of scene, and enables them to meet up with people from other homes."

PARCHE has a code of conduct, provides training and informed advice, and can offer resources such as CDs of backing music for hymns, and two purpose-written books of services and Bible studies.

It is a simple model, which can be easily replicated, and PARCHE has recently appointed a national project director to work with other churches interested in facilitating a similar ministry in their community.

In Dorchester, meeting an unmet need has meant that Dorchester Community Church has set up a befriending service, "Dorchester Friends in Deed", after a paramedic in the congregation realised that the town's biggest need was to provide companionship to isolated and vulnerable people.

"We offer people the opportunity to have someone come round - maybe to take them out to the cinema, maybe to sit and play a game of Scrabble with them, or do a jigsaw, or just pass the time of day for an hour or two. They can meet up with their befriender once a week, or once a fortnight, or once a month, as they like," the church pastor, Roger Frapwell, says.

DORCHESTER Friends in Deed currently has 22 befrienders (including a few from outside the church), and three more are awaiting clearance by the Government's Disclosure and Barring Service. It currently has 18 "befriendees", and six more referrals are awaiting assessment. Each volunteer is given five or six hours' initial training. "It's not about ramming John 3.16 down people's throats: it's about being the good news, more than sharing it," Mr Frapwell says.

The befriending service runs alongside bi-monthly teas at Dorchester Community Church for senior citizens. Members of the congregation have been furnishing the elderly with sandwiches, scones, cake, and trifle for more than 40 years. The tea is followed by a service that is tailored especially to older people, and includes a few verses of some favourite hymns. The church offers a "pick-up" service for those who need it, and about 50 people attend.

"A lot of them are on their own," Mr Frapwell says. "And many of them will say that this is the first time that they have spoken to another person that day. For some of them, too, food is an issue if they're a bit strapped for cash. One or two take home a doggie bag."

Ms Robbins warns that there can be a stigma around churches' offering befriending services, if it is an isolated service. "Some older people love it, and value it; but, for others, it reinforces the fact that they don't have anybody, and it makes them feel vulnerable and needy.

"Befriending can only alleviate their isolation for an hour or two; so there has to be extra support that helps to link the older person into other things. For example, the befriender could find out what their interests are, and even pair them up with other people they can phone, so it's more about building a new network of friends.

"Otherwise, the older person becomes heavily reliant on the befriender, and it becomes quite complicated for them both."

THE Good Neighbour Project, in Tunbridge Wells, supported by all of the town's 14 churches, has taken care to address these issues. "We offer a befriending scheme, but it's more about mentoring and enabling where we can," the manager, Theresa Halliday, says. She leads a paid part-time staff of five.

"We operate very professionally. If someone is referred to us by social services, we do a home visit to find out what the problem really is, because sometimes what people say it is, and what it actually is, are different. Is it because they're bereaved? Is it because they haven't got friends?

"We'll encourage them wherever possible to try local social groups, most of which are run by the churches in Tunbridge Wells, though we also promote Age Concern, Contact the Elderly, and the University of the Third Age (U3A). One of our volunteers will go with them until they've made friends and got a new circle, and then, once the client has got support around him or her, the volunteer will withdraw. We don't want to create dependence on one volunteer.

"We started in 2006, after a group of Christian people here thought: 'How can we help our neighbours?' One of them was an elderly lady who was struggling herself, and she saw others like her struggling. We now have over 700 clients on our database, and the majority of them are 80-plus.

"If younger people are referred to us, we try to get them to do things: to get involved in U3A, or to volunteer themselves. We always encourage people to be independent. Visiting someone and making them a cup of tea is lovely; but, actually, we want something bigger and better for them - we want them to be able to interact with whoever they want, whenever they want.

"Once someone become housebound, that's different; then we befriend them to the end of their lives. But, really, the only thing we want people to be dependent on is the love of Jesus, which is what our volunteers try to show."

FOR some churches, the scale of the problem can dwarf the resources available, and yet it is still possible to make inroads, especially with initiatives such as PARCHE.

At All Saints', Southport, in Merseyside, 80 per cent of the parishioners are aged over 60, and 90 per cent of the congregation are pensioners. There are "a lot of very, very lonely people in the area," the Vicar, the Revd Sonya Marshall, says.

In 2006, All Saints' had 100 volunteers in training to go into the local care homes; but, when Ms Marshall arrived last September, the congregation had dwindled to 37. "The care teams were still going out, but it was nearly killing them because there were so few of them; they were getting old themselves."

Today, her congregation has almost doubled. "We now have a team of six who take holy communion out to many of the nursing homes, and take time to interact with the people there, which means a lot to them.

"In the church, we have a weekly coffee morning, which is starting to bring the community together; and we've organised a few trips in the minibus for those who are more able, which has allowed some friendships to develop.

"We've also just started a very popular 'diners' club', whereby people sign up through the church for an early-bird meal in a local restaurant, which is particularly popular with single people and those who are bereaved. It's only £9 or so for a two-course meal. And Southport is a reasonably affluent area, and so a lot of them can afford a taxi."

Ms Marshall is hoping to see even more develop. She has suggested to church leaders in Southport that they pool resources to increase the provision. "The idea found favour," she says, and she hopes more will be available to the elderly in Southport in the future.

FOR churches that are thin on volunteers or facilities, the national charity Contact the Elderly, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, provides an easy way to respond through its successful format, the executive officer for London and the South of England, Cliff Rich, says.

"Each month, in each of our groups across the UK, a volunteer host welcomes up to a dozen people - eight 'older guests', plus their volunteer drivers - to their home for a couple of hours for Sunday tea.

"It isn't a massive commitment. Our drivers do one afternoon a month, and drive the same people each time. Our hosts each do two teas a year. We have over 7000 volunteers across the country, and many of them have been with us for 20, 30 - even 40 years."

Contact the Elderly is happy to accept drivers as young as 18, as long as they pass muster. It asks for two references for each new driver, and does a standard DBS check - but they must have a full licence, and access to a car. Hosts must have a ground-floor lavatory, without any steps, and a room large enough to seat at least eight people.

ALTHOUGH churches involved in caring for the elderly will, in most cases, find themselves addressing a much-felt community need, working with older people also provides its own reward, Ruth Bartlett says. She is one of half-a-dozen members of the Community Church in Westbury, Bristol, who volunteer with Contact the Elderly.

"The elderly have so much to offer in terms of life experience and wisdom and humour, and you can only gain by spending time with them. It's definitely a two-way thing. My children really look forward to them coming to tea, and put on little presentations for them; and my husband and I often ask them for their advice."

Linda Hunt-Green, who has been a befriender in Tunbridge Wells since ill health obliged her to take early retirement, says: "I've been doing it for four years, and I generally do a couple of hours a week. I really enjoy the company of older people, and this is something I can give love and experience to."

Ms Robbins points out that contact with older people can be especially good for young adults, who are as much prey to loneliness and isolation as the elderly. This may be a result of the transitions and disconnections in their lives, possibly including family break-up, and they "don't even have the good old days to reminisce about," she says.

In thinking through appropriate ways to respond, Mr Thomas says that it is good to find innovative ways to engage with the elderly that break the mould of "Let's have a meeting for the old folk."

"If someone housebound loves animals, can you pair them up with someone in your church who walks a dog every day, who can stop by at their house for some water?" Mr Thomas asks. "Could someone who goes running every day call in on their route, maybe to deliver a newspaper?

"If someone is isolated because they're infirm, can a member of the congregation pick them up and take them shopping - not doing their shopping for them, because they actually like shopping, but walking alongside them, helping them with their bags, and the process of choosing. That's the kind of thing the church can do."

In thinking creatively, it is worth thinking, too, what gifts and talents people in the congregation have. At St Paul's, Onslow Square, in London - which is united with Holy Trinity, Brompton - free bi-monthly classical concerts are offered "for older people and friends", accompanied by a tea "à la Ritz".

"It's organised by a member of our congregation who has a great heart for older people, and is a musician herself," says Holy Trinity's spokesman, Mark Elsdon-Dew. "She has lots of friends who perform free of charge. They are amazingly generous, but I think they feel it is worth it because it is so appreciated.

"We get about 350 people, including more than a dozen Chelsea Pensioners. People get bused in now. Julian Lloyd Webber has played several times, and the Duchess of Cornwall attended in 2012. We go to enormous trouble to ensure that it's the most beautiful tea, with lots of cakes in little pyramids. We try to make sure that everybody has the most fantastic afternoon."









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