UCL student Lydia has been volunteering as a befriender since May 2017. She tells us about her friendship with her befriending match Maria, their shared love of food and how loneliness can affect you at all ages.
“We are living through an epidemic of loneliness that is affecting all age groups. I regularly feel lonely due to the isolating effects of a London life combined with the dependency on social media to interact with friends. But however lonely I feel, surely this cannot compare to an elderly person who is housebound and unable to have regular contact with anyone, in person or otherwise.
Not only is loneliness bad for mental health, but studies have also shown that loneliness can be twice as detrimental for older people’s health than obesity, and is almost equivalent to poverty as a cause of death. In an age were community spirit has been eroded, I decided to address this, together with my own loneliness and that of an elderly person, by reaching out and signing up to a ‘befriending’ scheme.
I started a PhD at UCL and looked through the list of affiliated volunteer programmes to find the Holborn Community Association’s (HCA) befriending scheme. I got in contact with the scheme organiser Kate, and we met to see what would be required of me as a befriender and to list my interests which including cooking and languages. I would be matched with an elderly person in the area and would visit them once a week for an hour. Kate then ran a day’s training for a group of befrienders to inform us of the process and any emergency procedures. I then waited for a match. After a few weeks, news came Kate had matched me with Maria, a lady in her late 80s that due to various medical conditions was unable to get out of her home regularly. Maria had left Spain under Franco’s rule and came to live in England in the 70s. She was referred to the befriending scheme after describing her loneliness to her GP. On our first meeting, we instantly hit it off! Maria was happy to be able to speak in Spanish and I was so grateful to be able to practice the language, even if we did venture into Spanglish quite regularly!
Maria and I have been seeing each other once a week and our friendship has blossomed. Maria has a wonderful sense of humour and we belly laugh almost every week. She tells me stories of what it was like to live under Franco’s dictatorship in Spain and funny stories from her idyllic childhood. We both love cooking and often talk about food. Once I arrived to find Maria had bought all the ingredients for a Spanish omelette (tortilla Espanola) and we spent the hour cooking together. She has become more than just a befriendee to me, she has become my friend.
In this era of loneliness, I would urge everyone to connect with an elderly person in their lives; it could be a relative or someone in their community. Regular contact with an isolated person can help to address the loneliness that is so commonplace in our lives and provide unexpected lifelong friendships.