Phone ‘befriending’ can ease loneliness for older people

Assumpta Walsh, Sr Mary Teresa, former coordinator of the Castlebar Voluntary Social Services, and Noreen Durkan are volunteers with the telephone befriending service.

Assumpta Walsh, Sr Mary Teresa, former coordinator of the Castlebar Voluntary Social Services, and Noreen Durkan are volunteers with the telephone befriending service.

Figures released earlier this year by a national telephone service - Senior Help Line - made for some heartbreaking reading.

The help line, which offers older people an empathetic ear on a range of issues, revealed it received more than 2,200 calls from Mayo in 2013 and loneliness and isolation were some of the biggest problems reported by older people in the county.

However, locally, tucked away unassumingly in the corner of Castle Street carpark, Castlebar, there is a centre which is working every day, providing a wide array of services, to increase the quality of life for older people in Mayo.

Manager at Castlebar Voluntary Social Services, Deirdre Waldron, is concerned many older people in the county and their families may not be aware of an innovative, free, telephone ‘befriending’ service they are operating, which could help tackle the problems of loneliness and isolation.

The service sees a team of 10 volunteers take to the phones three times a week for a chat and a catch-up with the people who have signed up with them.

“A lot of people aren’t aware the service is there,” explained Ms Waldron. “A trained ‘befriender’ phones up the people on their books once or twice a week to make sure they are OK and to have a chat.”

The service is confidential and people using it can chat as little or as much as they like.

“Anyone, a neighbour, a GP, a nurse, home help worker or family member, can refer someone to us if they think they would benefit from the service,” she continued.

She said sometimes older people are mindful of their privacy and, for that reason, may be reluctant to sign-up. However she assured the service is confidential and very respectful.

“We are not there to encroach on anyone’s privacy but just to alleviate a little bit of loneliness,” she explained.

Assumpta Walsh is a befriending volunteer, working on the telephone service three mornings a week.

She said the service is a lifeline for many of its users. “Sometimes, on a Monday morning, I’ll phone up someone and they haven’t spoken to anyone at all for two or three days. We might not be able to change their personal circumstances but we can be a voice on the other end of the phone, someone to ask if they are OK, are they are warm, are they comfortable, have they enough to eat.”

Noreen Durkan is also a befriending volunteer and she describes the people on her weekly list of phonecalls as “like family now”.

“You build up a relationship and the confidence grows and many people want to talk about all kinds of things, just like friends or family would,” she explained.

Ms Waldron pointed out that signing up for the befriending service can also help older people to link in with lots of other services in their area, of which they might not have been aware.

The befriender can help the older person in accessing HSE services and other services from the centre itself.

The centre operates meals-on-wheels, seven days a week, all year round, making and delivering 80 hot meals every day to older people living alone. It is also a drop-in day centre, providing a warm, comfortable, secure place for older people and more vulnerable people to relax, chat, enjoy activities or have a hot meal in the restaurant while in town.

Castlebar Voluntary Social Services also operate a free community bus service three days a week, offers classes and activities, provides security devices for older people at home, and runs a basic laundry service and a bakery.

For more information on the befriending service or Castlebar Voluntary Social Services in general, contact (094 ) 9021378.

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