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Know Your Neighbours

Jodie Sheehan speaks to staff and volunteers at York Neighbours to reveal the work they do for our elderly

As we get older, simple tasks can begin to seem like an impossibility, and the days may become quieter and lonelier. As the hustle and bustle of daily life dies away, for some, loneliness is a reality that settles like dust around them, impressing itself on the everyday, especially when family and friends are no longer around. And while many are lucky enough to have supportive family and friends, it may be that they are living at a distance with lives of their own, preventing them from being there as much as they would like.

Founded in 2015, the charity York Neighbours endeavours to alleviate the struggles that some of the older members of our community face. York Neighbours was founded when Belfrey Neighbours – a local initiative that started in the Belfrey Church in York – became a charity in its own right with a vision of its own. By working in collaboration with many volunteers, York Neighbours helps our older generation to complete the tasks they couldn’t on their own, provides friendly voices to chat with over the phone, and organises outings and events to allow those who are so often housebound to enjoy the company of others in a different setting.

A member of the charity’s office staff explained: “York Neighbours’ aim is to reduce loneliness and social isolation by enabling older people to stay independent at home. We do this in three ways. Firstly, we provide help with one-off tasks in the home such as changing a light bulb or taking down or hanging curtains. We also offer occasional transport to appointments for neighbours with no other means of transport. Second, we plan outings throughout the year so that those who might otherwise be unable to go out are able to socialise, in an effort to reduce isolation. Lastly, we make fortnightly or monthly phone calls to neighbours for a chat and to see how people are.” 

While there are other charities dedicated to helping the elderly, such as Age UK, The Cinnamon Trust and Contact the Elderly, the office staff at York Neighbours explained that: “York Neighbours was set up to fill in gaps, and not to copy other services already out there. The staff are trying to keep on top of what other services cover and we work closely with Age UK to make sure we can complement them, and offer the best support we can.”

York Neighbours currently employs three part-time staff, including one Co-ordinator and two Assistant Co-ordinators. The office staff are responsible for the day-to-day running of the charity, recruiting and training volunteers, assessing and registering new neighbours and co-ordinating the requests for help from the neighbours. Neighbours who are registered with the charity can call up to make requests and ask for help with household tasks and local errands, which the office staff send out to volunteers by email. They make sure that volunteers are well-informed about what is being asked so that they can make an informed decision about whether they can help. Office staff are also responsible for co-ordinating outings, promotional talks, fundraising, and a lot of behind-the-scenes jobs which are vital for the day-to-day running of the office.

While the staff members are central to the organisation of the good work that the charity carries out, the volunteers are truly at its heart. With just under 300 neighbours registered with the charity as of December 2018, there are currently a total of 67 volunteers to meet their needs. The office staff stressed the importance of the volunteers, commenting: “Everything we do is made possible by our amazing volunteers. Without them, York Neighbours would not be able to provide the service it does. They are the ones going out into the community, changing the light bulbs, putting together the flat pack, putting up the curtains, taking neighbours to appointments, and coming into the office to make regular calls."

Jess Botting, a third year Psychology student at the University, is a volunteer with York Neighbours, and goes into the office for a few hours each week. She explained, “I got involved with York Neighbours because I think loneliness is an unseen problem that we need to combat. As a volunteer, I make phone calls to vulnerable elderly individuals. This can be to ask if they have any one-off jobs they need help with at the moment but it’s also just to have a chat with them and see how they are.” She went on to say, “Usually it is easy to make conversation, starting with what they’ve been doing recently or what some of their favourite activities are.” Many neighbours are gregarious and eager to natter away, often equipped with captivating stories to tell. Having experienced so much of life and so many interesting moments in history, many are happy to share anecdotes of their youth, so that conversation is just as rewarding for the volunteer as it is appreciated by the neighbour. Jess pointed out that, “Volunteering with York Neighbours gives the brilliant experience of talking to a variety of people. A few people I’ve spoken to are so up to date and attentive to current affairs; it’s really interesting to talk to them. And I think for the neighbours, chatting to us can help them feel connected to younger generations as well as helping them feel like someone cares and wants to talk to them.” Regarding the effect on those she chats to, Jess commented: “Generally everyone is very thankful for the call. Sometimes I will start a conversation and the neighbour is not very cheery but by the end they are chatting away and seem really positive. That is the most rewarding part for me.”

Another key element of what York Neighbours offers is organising outings. These trips usually take place twice a year, around spring or summertime and at Christmas. A member of the office staff explained: “For some of our neighbours our outings are one of the few opportunities to go out and have a chance to socialise. We have arranged Christmas lunches, trips to the coast, and theatre trips, and we have also worked with Bootham School where we organised a Christmas afternoon tea where the students of the school welcomed our neighbours and chatted with them over tea and mince pies. This intergenerational socialising was very popular with our neighbours.”
Again, the volunteers are essential to ensure events like these are successful. Many of the neighbours attending the outings have limited mobility and rely on help from volunteers in order to travel to the venue where the event is held. The office staff explained: “Our volunteers offer neighbours transport in their private cars. For many with limited mobility this provides an opportunity to get out as they are not able to go on a coach for instance. We would also have extra volunteers available in instances where we take someone out in a wheelchair or where a neighbour has a sight impairment. This gives us an opportunity to better cater for the individuals' needs. We trust our volunteers to make sure the neighbours are well looked after, from the moment they are picked up until they are safely back home." They added: "A lot of planning goes into our outings, making sure the venue is suitable and accessible, completing a risk assessment of the event, and co-ordinating and liaising with volunteers and neighbours."

A neighbour who is registered with the charity described their experience with York Neighbours: “I’ve been registered with York Neighbours for two years now. I’ve received help with changing light bulbs, which has helped me to see better and help has also been offered with rearranging and sorting books out.” She went on to say simply, “I’ve had someone there to ring and give me a hand when I’ve needed it. I live alone and my family do not live nearby, so it’s good to know this support is available.”

If you would like to volunteer with this wonderful charity and help reduce social isolation among the elderly, please visit the York Neighbours’ website to find out more information about how you can get involved. When loneliness sets in and tasks seem unmanageable, sometimes that ten-minute chat over the phone, and the knowledge that there is someone living in your own community who is there and willing to help, is simply indispensable.

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