Published: 05:00, 30 December 2021
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 Neighbours service, Kent Coast Volunteering's befriending project, helps tackle loneliness by pairing volunteers with older people in the community, as Rhys Griffiths reports.
Sitting down with Maurice Jones, a former NHS hospital manager, in his smartly-kept Sandgate living room, you can sense from his smile how much he enjoys company.
But the 93-year-old, who moved into assisted accommodation after his wife died, is happy to admit that - especially during lockdown - the "blank days" spent alone can weigh heavy for those who live on their own.
Thankfully for Maurice, who has a daughter living in Folkestone, there is support nearby - and through the Good Neighbours scheme he has been able to strike up new friendships with volunteers from Kent Coast Volunteering (KCV).
"I lost my wife just before I came here," he said of his relocation from retirement in Hythe to his new home in Sandgate.
"My doctor got in touch with the Folkestone volunteer centre and asked them to find a friend for me.
"I've been to see Maurice every week or two since then, and we have found we get along..."
"I had an enquiry asking me about myself and so forth, and after a while they very kindly found somebody who 'fitted me', as it were, because he had a similar interest and background to my own.
"I was lucky enough to have a man who had been a chief ambulance officer, and I had spent 40-odd years in the health service. So between us we had a lot in common, which made it much easier, and then unfortunately he passed away last year."
Now Maurice has been paired up with John Steed, a 71-year-old former construction worker from Cheriton, who sought out opportunities for volunteering in the community after retirement.
John explains that, because of Covid restrictions, their first interactions consisted of a weekly phone call, but as the lockdown eased the pair were able to meet up outside and eventually visit each other's homes.
He said: "In the summer we had a couple of visits to my house in the garden, and then I've been to see Maurice every week or two since then, and we have found we get along.
"I don't really think of it so much as helping now, as going to see somebody."
Both Maurice and John hope that by sharing their experience of the befriending service they can encourage more volunteers to come forward and be paired with an older person locally.
KCV operates this scheme right along the east Kent coast from Hythe up to Thanet, and as well as offering a friend to talk to the service can also support people with shopping, admin and other jobs which may start to prove more tricky as people get older.
Katy Murray, who co-ordinates the Good Neighbours project for KCV, says finding people to give their time has become harder since the start of the pandemic.
"There's been a paucity of applications recently," she said. "In part because I think people are fearful themselves of Covid so they are not coming forward as much as they used to.
"But also because many people who used to volunteer are now looking after their own parents and vulnerable relatives and friends."
In October the KCV team were recognised for their work during the pandemic when they won a prize for innovation at the Kent Mental Health and Wellbeing Awards for their Anthology project.
Taking the form of a book and an exhibition at the Leas Lift, it brought together words and pictures capturing the experience of users of the Good Neighbours Service during lockdown.
The stories reinforce the importance of connection and during the festive period, a time when many people experience terrible loneliness, they show just why KCV is so keen for more people to come forward and give their time to strike up a friendship with an older person in the community.
"It is very nice to know that there will be somebody coming to see you at least once a week," Maurice said.
"Unfortunately, until you get old yourself, you don't realise what could be to come..."
"It may not sound much but that once a week is quite important. Because if you get too many blank days, as it were, it can get a bit boring and I think some people could be very depressed.
"Unfortunately, until you get old yourself, you don't realise what could be to come, and while you're reasonably young and active you've got your own lives to lead.
"Then you haven't got the same sort of relationship with people that unfortunately have reached the stage in their life when they're beginning to get cut off from things."