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The power of friendship in old age

22 June 2018

As people age, loneliness can become a serious problem. Huw Spanner considers church efforts to combat this

Residents of Hartford Court, a care home in Portsmouth, take part in a Messy Vintage craft session.

Residents of Hartford Court, a care home in Portsmouth, take part in a Messy Vintage craft session.

A SURVEY released in February by the Church of England and the Church Urban Fund, identified isolation and loneliness as the most pressing social issue that Church of England clergy are encountering in their parishes: 76 per cent identified it as a “significant”, if not “major”, problem. This was an increase from 58 per cent in a similar survey in 2011 (News, 9 February).

This problem especially affects vulnerable elderly people, and, as the population of Britain continues to grow older, it looks set to become more acute. On present trends, the number of people aged 85-plus in Britain will more than double in the next 20 years.

Jill Phipps, a former physiotherapist, has been employed since 2015 by Portsmouth Cathedral; her remit, as she puts it, is “to show the love and care of God and the Church to anyone in the city over 65”. She strongly believes that there is a need for an increased focus on ministry for older people. “We are an ageing society, and yet the accent is so much on youth, and not least in the Church. It’s as if the old don’t matter: the minute they can’t get to church, or go into a home, they’re forgotten, or they feel as if they are.”

The Principal of Sarum College, Canon James Woodward, argues that the Church needs the elderly. “Churches are places where we can reflect on the wisdom of age, and put that to use in building a more humane, connected, pastoral society. Yet a lot of older people tell me: ‘I don’t feel that anyone in church is bothered about me, or listens to me.’”

He contends that clergy “need to know and love their community, and be ready to pastor and journey alongside its more vulnerable members, whether or not they are actively engaged with the Church”. That will require a radical departure from current priorities, he says, to “a longer-view approach to ministry which is about sowing seeds over time. It’s about nurturing relationships, and reminding people of God’s love and care for them in the people who represent the Church.

“We need to realise that listening is one of the most powerful missional tools that God has given to us.”

Laura LeatherbarrowCollege students provide free beauty treatment to two of the regulars at The Sanctuary

ONE expression of this has been pioneered in Surrey, where Pippa Cramer, a former occupational therapist, now works full-time as a pastoral care and seniors minister for Holy Trinity, Claygate. Some eight years ago, she started a group, “Connections”, which meets in the church every Tuesday. “We push all the chairs back, and set up little coffee tables, café-style, with pretty tablecloths and flowers, and lay on free coffee and homemade cakes.

“We have a fantastic team of people to welcome our guests — that is absolutely key — and we go to great lengths to make sure there is never anyone sitting by themselves.” The oldest of her volunteers is 95. “She’ll come up to me at the beginning of a session and say, ‘Who is new today, Pippa? Who would you like me to go and chat to?’ and off she goes on her Zimmer frame. Later, she’ll ring them and invite them over for coffee.”

Typically, there are 120 to 130 visitors each week, including a “phenomenal number” of men. “Older men are generally harder to reach than women,” Mrs Cramer says; “so we make a concerted effort. Women are happy to sit and natter, but men need something to focus on; so we have lots of activity tables that are good for men in particular. We’ve had a Hornby Dublo train set, for example, and we encourage our guests to bring in their stamp collections, old newspapers, medals. We also have a really good team of male volunteers who can sit and chat to the older men.”

There are occasional special events, such as film nights, and a tea dance with a live band. The name “Connections” has proven apt: besides connecting people with “new, local friends — sometimes with old friends”, Mrs Cramer says, it is also providing a “bridge into church”.

A craft session at The Sanctuary

CONNECTION is crucial, Canon Woodward says. In Developing a Relational Model of Care for Older People, a book he has written with the director of Faith in Society, Jenny Kartupelis, and which was recently published by Jessica Kingsley, he argues that society’s current focus on “person-centred care” needs to be replaced by “relationship-centred care”.

“We all value our independence; but, as we grow old, we need to find communities where our interdependence is nourished, particularly as our lives change and we become more aware of our limitations. The emphasis in our culture on ignoring the realities of old age, and ‘keeping on going’ doesn’t actually help us to age well — and it may even increase social isolation.”

Even people who are living in care homes can be isolated. Isolation is not just physical, Mrs Phipps explains. “It’s a matter of not having an emotional connection with people, not having things in common with others — history, habits, likes, and dislikes. In some ways, older people in a care home are all in the same boat, but what gives them hope is seeing the young, and we shouldn’t be cutting the different generations off from each other.”

Intergenerational connection is one of the aims of The Sanctuary, which was started 18 months ago by the Revd Laura Leatherbarrow, a former nurse who is now Acting Rector of four congregations in East Widnes.

“I found myself living in the middle of social housing, where a lot of people were lonely with nowhere to go. Widnes has a high suicide rate, and a lot of problems with mental health. What I wanted to create was a community who would watch out for each other.

“St Ambrose’s is a Victorian red-brick pile, which everyone thought was closed. We opened the doors one Wednesday morning, put a sign out, and eight people came. I played Scrabble with one of them, a widower in his late eighties who is very deaf and lives alone. He has come faithfully ever since. Now, we can have anything from 65 up to 110. We are still only scratching the surface, but we are getting bigger every week, growing largely by word of mouth.”

Her team of volunteers make sure that people receive a friendly welcome as soon as they walk in. Inside, The Sanctuary offers “extravagant hospitality, because Jesus was extravagant”, she says. “We provide the best coffee, the best Clipper tea, and Galaxy hot chocolate. We have a baker who bakes for us every week, and the cakes are beautiful. For lunch, we provide soup and good crusty bread. And everything’s free.”

As well as the elderly widows who go to The Sanctuary, there are young mothers, who are also lonely and struggling with anxiety. Disabled people come, too, because it is a safe place where they are not stared at, Mrs Leatherbarrow says. “And it works. The older women teach the younger ones how to knit, or they put one of the babies on the lap of a man in a wheelchair, who feels so proud because he’s never been trusted to hold a baby before. If one of the older ones hasn’t turned up at Sanctuary, one of the younger ones will say: ‘I’ll pop round and see if they’re all right.’”

The Sanctuary is open every Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. (3 p.m. if there is a course on). Currently there is a free seven-week course, “Living Well”, run by the borough’s well-being services. “Maybe 80 per cent of those attending it are elderly bereaved people,” Mrs Leatherbarrow says. “It’s based on cognitive therapy, and banishing negative thoughts.”

A 2016 paper from the Research and Policy team at the Church Urban Fund, Connecting Communities: The impact of loneliness and opportunities for churches to respond, found that group-based activities were better than one-to-one interventions; activity groups based on mutual interest were more effective than groups trying to “target” lonely people; and the groups that were most effective were those that allowed members to take responsibility for leadership.

Groups are not for everybody, however, Mrs Phipps acknowledges. “So then I would try and connect people up with a home visitor — a befriender, or a lay pastoral assistant, something like that, who would go and visit them regularly.”

A volunteer at the coins-and-medals table at Connections

ELDERLY people can sometimes be difficult to reach. “They are very hard to find unless you physically go out and knock on doors,” Mrs Phipps says. “In the village where I live, we do a couple of roads every month, following up with a letter from the local churches. In Portsmouth, I rely on networks of people to tell me: ‘So-and-so hasn’t been to lunch club recently,’ or ‘Somebody said they saw so-and-so in hospital.’”

Canon Woodward suggests that, “although parish priests will say it is just impossible, I’d want to explore how we might have some meaningful contact with isolated individuals in the community. It could be as simple as a regular telephone call, or an old-fashioned postcard just to remind people that they are thought about and prayed for. It could be a system of lay visitors.”

Debbie Thrower pioneered the Anna Chaplaincy (now a ministry of the Bible Reading Fellowship, named after the 84-year-old widow in Luke 2 who met the infant Jesus at the Temple) as a community-based, ecumenical initiative to promote the spiritual well-being of older people (Back page interview, 19 December 2014; Feature, 27 January 2017).

It is always going to be hard to find the people who are living in chronic pain behind closed doors, she says. “That’s the point of the chaplaincy. If you have an Anna Chaplain in a community, I think they are the person who is likeliest to find the hard-to-reach people who you don’t necessarily find already congregating in clubs and societies.”

She has found that people who do this “act as a catalyst for others to discern their own gifts in this area, and you quickly gather a team of volunteers around you: people who might already be doing something, but maybe didn’t have much confidence, and certainly didn’t have much status within a parish or a community”.

In the market town of Alton, in Hampshire, where she created the Anna Chaplaincy in 2010, her legacy includes some more reflective groups that are tailored to different conditions and temperaments. The Hard of Hearing Club, now run by Kate Dando, a retired deputy head teacher in her late seventies, meets three times a month, and has about 55 people on its books.

The Library Club, run by Peta Sutherland, a former psychotherapist coming up to her 80th birthday, meets once a month on an afternoon when the public library is otherwise closed. “We’ve got an 110-year-old who stands up and recites poetry from memory,” Mrs Sutherland says. “We have gathered in quite a few who are far from extrovert, but they’ve made friends with each other, and the level of chat is wonderful to hear.”

On the island of Jersey, Katie Norman has developed Messy Vintage, a spin-off of Messy Church, for elderly people. Each month, she organises seven sessions, one in the Philadelphie Messy Centre (formerly a Methodist church) in the parish of St Peter, and the rest take place in care homes or dementia units.

“Wherever we do it, the pattern is much the same,” she says. “It’s about communicating and having conversations while we do a theme-based craft together. That leads us into some worship time, and then we pull all the strands together with a very simple message. It’s very light-touch.

“If we’re at the Centre, we then go into the hall for afternoon tea. We make our guests feel very special, with three-tier cake stands, sandwich fingers with no crusts, and homemade cakes. Everything is really beautifully done.”

She has a team of almost 30 people. “We have no trouble recruiting people: it’s a real team ministry, and the team themselves gain so much from it. When you’re working alongside older people, you always think you’re doing it for them, but, honestly, when you’re doing a craft with someone who can’t communicate, and suddenly a smile just lights up their face, I can’t tell you how much that blesses you.”

In 2016, Mrs Norman became “Messy Vintage Co-ordinator” for Messy Church, to help other churches explore and develop the idea of Messy Vintage among older people.

People enjoy themselves at a Connections tea dance

AS OTHER church organisations respond to the issue of isolation and loneliness among older people, several faith-based charities, including Livability, Linking Lives UK, Pilgrims Friend, Parish Nursing Ministries UK, Care Home Friends, and the BRF programme the Gift of Years, among others, have formed a coalition, Christians Together Against Loneliness, specifically to tackle isolation among older people.

Last month, they launched a resource, “Make a Meal of It”, to mobilise churches to connect with “older people on the margins” through a community meal, with a view to building long-term relationships.

Something like Connections is easy to replicate, Mrs Cramer says: “You can start with two or three people inviting a couple of elderly neighbours, and it doesn’t have to be in the church, it can be anywhere. One church that has copied us, in Sussex, meets in a pub. You need a team who all buy into the vision, but it isn’t rocket science. The essence of it is a culture of acceptance and love and care.”

Mrs Leatherbarrow echoes this. “To anyone who thinks ‘I can’t do that,’ I would say: yes, you can. In any church in any community, rich or poor, there is an amazing amount you can achieve with tea or coffee and a listening ear. If your diocese is supportive and forward-thinking, the world is your oyster.”

Social services and councils are keen to work with the Church, she has found. “Five years ago, it was a different story, but now they want to know what it is we can offer, so that they can refer people to us.

“Austerity has caused this, but I think that the Church should be excited by what God is doing across our country. The beauty of the gospel is incredible, and people are almost challenging us: ‘Go on, then, prove it.’”


 Canon Black (left) on an outing with St Mary’s, Grassendale, Network55

Setting up groups is ‘simple’

CANON NEVILLE BLACK, who is 82, was Priest-in-Charge of an inner-city church in Liverpool when he started a monthly lunch club that developed into a social club. He noticed that these activities attracted, in particular, people aged 60-plus. Since his retirement, he has set up several more groups in the city for older people.

Widowers are much more difficult to bring into a social group than widows, he says; so he is planning to start a group specifically for men. “I want to catch some while they are still married, so that if they lose their wives, they are not without a resource.” He expects to be able to gather ten to 15 “fairly easily”. He will probably start with a curry night, he says.

“If somebody gave me £10,000 to employ an active 55-year-old to promote this principle around the diocese, I think it would take off. All you need to do to start a group up is get two or three people to meet once a month for a cup of coffee or a pint, and then build a programme of events. It’s a wonderful way to develop networks of elderly people. It’s very simple, and it has enormous potential.”

The Orders of St John Care TrustJudith with a resident at Ashwood Care Centre, near Warminster, a home that also keeps chickens

‘They just like company’

JUDITH LESLEY, 66, has a “heart for people who are lonely”. Since she retired, this has led her to become a volunteer visitor to residents in two care homes in Warminster, the town where she lives, in Wiltshire.

She has been visiting Henford House, a Barchester home, every week for just over ten years. “In the morning, we usually play Scrabble, or some other board game. In the afternoon, we do all sorts.” Once a month, she visits Ashwood Care Centre, an Order of St John Care Trust (OSJCT) home, where she offers regular slide shows for residents on a variety of topics. “They look forward to the visits,” she says.

“In care homes, some people only see people at mealtimes. So they are in desperate need for somebody to chat to, whether it’s chatting about the weather, or about their past life. They just like company; the day must go by very slowly.”

She also volunteers at a drop-in help centre, started by a group from two churches in Warminster. “We get people coming in asking for help with applying for benefits, or: ‘My wife has just died, what can I do to get over it?’ Any kind of help that people need. . . So many people need a listening ear, or a helping hand, or just the feeling that somebody cares for them.”

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