The Link Visiting Scheme arranges for a volunteer to visit an older person once a week for between one and two hours. This contact often provides a lifeline to older people who may not otherwise have any contact with the outside world.
After operating in the town of Woodley for nine years, the church recognised the need for such a scheme across a wider area, and in 2007 church leaders from across Wokingham Borough explored ways in which they could work together to address issues of isolation. This resulted in 19 churches of various denominations creating a network for this purpose. The Local Authority then agreed to provide funding to enable staff to be employed to run the project.
The primary focus of the original scheme remains on home visiting but other projects have since been started according to the needs and interests of older people.
These include weekly 'Understanding Computers' courses which enable older people to learn how to use email and the internet. (This leads to their being able to communicate regularly with relatives, or investigate other local activities available to them); Regular 'Pie and Pint Clubs' aimed particularly at older men who may have been bereaved or are isolated for other reasons; other projects such as Singing Groups, Bowls Clubs and various outings and special events.
In all, over 230 older people are now regularly reached of which 150 receive visits and a further 80 engage in other projects and activities. A team of over 130 volunteers enable this to operate.
What are the benefits?
There is growing evidence of the detrimental effect that isolation and loneliness can have on the health, well-being and life expectancy of people of all ages. The model of The Link Visiting Scheme provides a crucial social point of contact which, in itself, helps to build self-confidence and self-esteem and often leads to improved mental health and independence.
Consequently, older people can gain improvements in their mobility and explore options to visit local clubs, church activities and events leading to the establishment of a wider circle of friends. The 'Understanding Computers' and 'Pie and Pint Clubs' provide opportunities for Link friends to engage in innovative and beneficial activities enabling the development of new skills.
Volunteer visitors also gain from the experience of sharing in the life of an older person from a different generation leading to a greater understanding of life in earlier times.
Volunteers often report a sense of achievement and mutual benefit by having contact with a member of the community who appreciates them.
Setting up new projects
Since 2012, the charity has been responding to a sense that the model could be used in partnership with churches in other areas across the country. This vision is now becoming a reality with the support of The Cinnamon Network which has been providing guidance and funding towards enabling the model to be replicated.
The advantage of the model is that it works well in both rural and urban settings and can be set up with minimal resources.
The primary need is for a team of Christians with a heart for older people and an enthusiasm to work with various churches and other agencies.
A period of around six months is required to plan and prepare for the launch of a local project. This process is supported and guided by those with experience within The Link Visiting Scheme who make available all of the operational documents, policies, training materials and other guidance.
When we first met Carol she was quiet and withdrawn. She felt nervous at the thought of being with people she didn't know and didn't have the confidence to go outside on her own. She had a few health worries and her son lived a distance away.
She was spending many days alone and speaking to no one. Like many of the older people we meet she was in desperate need of seeing a friendly face - someone willing to spend some quality time with her and show a real interest.
After meeting her we introduced her to a volunteer who shared her love of gardening and wildlife. Some weeks they would take a trip to a local garden centre and pot plants together.
The simple act of visiting began to transform her life and it didn't take long to see the results. Her volunteer encouraged her to join a local club doing gentle exercise.
We arranged for the library to visit regularly and deliver books for her to read. We enrolled her in a club that took her out once a month on an outing and she came to our monthly pub lunch. Her mobility improved too and she began to take short walks in her neighbourhood and joined her local church!
'The first twenty years of my marriage were wonderful but then my wife became very depressed'. This was the story we heard when we first met Harry. Supporting his wife for many years had left Harry feeling down too. Cut off from friends and neighbours, he lacked motivation to do simple jobs around the house.
When we met him he felt overwhelmed with feelings of isolation and was tired and anxious. He had regular visits from his local psychiatric nurse and was on medication for his mood. His wife was living in a nursing home and he felt exhausted with visiting her every night.
He was nervous about meeting a volunteer. Now, three years on, he no longer sees his nurse and is no longer prescribed his medication. He really looks forward to Saturday mornings when he goes out for coffee with his volunteer.
We enrolled him in a local transport scheme and lifts were arranged for him to visit his wife. Having someone to listen to him was the turning point for Harry. He knew that each week he would have that quality time with someone who seemed to genuinely care and who chose to be there rather than being paid to be there. Small worries and concerns were easily dealt with and no longer built up to overwhelming issues. His motivation returned and so did his spark.
Sheila started visiting in 2009 and immediately realised that this was what she wanted to do. She had always cared about older people and was concerned about their need to get out more.
She quickly realised that the regular visits made a significant impact in the life of her 'Link friend' and this in turn enabled her to gain a sense of satisfaction.
Sheila explains 'my role as a volunteer visitor has taught me a lot about what older people have to offer. Once we get through the 'small talk' it is wonderful to be able to hear all about the wide experiences of my Link friend. I do not find the visits at all boring - it is a blessing to spend time with her.' Sheila was moved to have been told by one of the friends she visits 'you have become the daughter that I never had'.
'Even when I first met my volunteer I felt so much better. I felt someone cares for me for a change!'
'Everybody says how much better I am, I'm enjoying myself'
'I no longer feel trapped inside my house. I feel like I'm living again'
'When my wife died after 63 years of marriage I felt completely lost. Meeting Sue helped me find my feet again. It gave me something to look forward to each week and she taught me how to cook a few simple meals too!'
'She says she doesn't mind talking about the old days or looking at my photos. I didn't think younger people would be interested and it's wonderful to make a new friend even at my age!'
'It's a life-line. Thank you'
For further details about how to set up a befriending scheme in your area, contact Jeremy Sharpe on firstname.lastname@example.org
or 07970 100131 or go to www.linkvisiting.org