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Snapshot of a selfish volunteer: tea parties for older people

This is not a hashtag humblebrag. I volunteer and I get a heck of a lot out of it. So humour me for a moment and let me explain how and why I selfishly volunteer to help older people in my community.

Who, here, has been lonely?

Virtual poll. Put your hand up if you've been lonely for a day? Your friends are all out and busy. Facebook is quiet. There's nothing on TV.

Maybe you've been lonely for longer? A week off work with no plans in place.

Or even months, perhaps after a break up or a bereavement, when life takes on a different shape and you struggle, for a while, to make the jigsaw pieces fit.

Being alone and being lonely aren't the same thing. Many of us feel happy in our own company, and others can feel lonely in a crowded room.

The problem is when you want to have social contact but don't. That level of contact differs from one person to the next, and it is quite normal for people to experience loneliness in different ways.

For most of us, periods of loneliness are thankfully brief.

Social media has done a lot to exacerbate feelings of loneliness and to relieve it. We may feel more lonely when we see friends drinking cocktails without us, but less lonely when we can reach out and connect with a friend in just a few clicks.

But what if you are chronically lonely? What if your friends aren’t waiting on your mobile to lighten your day? How to you get back on your feet, back into society and keep the blues at bay?

Loneliness is an epidemic

Chronic loneliness is more that feeling blue from time to time. It is constant loneliness, made worse by social isolation, and it affects more people than you’d think.

Our society sometimes seems to be drifting apart: with more divorces and single-person households than before; the ability to dismiss people with a simple swipe; people moving to pursue work.

And one group who are massively affected by this epidemic of loneliness are the elderly.

Age UK estimates that 3.6 million older people in the UK experience loneliness, over 2 million of whom are aged over 75+

There are lots of reasons for this.

Bereavement that leaves older people living alone. Loss of mobility that keeps people trapped in their home. Busy lives for families, juggling work and children, that means visits can be few and far between.

1.9 million of those lonely older people say they feel ignored or invisible. I'll be honest, the thought of it terrifies me.

And that's why I've been selfishly volunteering for an older person's charity,Re-Engage.

Saving the world, one slice of cake at a time

Re-Engage’s approach is brilliantly simple. And as someone who loves cake and hates loneliness in equal measure, it is a win-win way of making a big difference in a small amount of time.

They organise volunteer-run tea parties for older people in your local community, recruiting small groups of volunteer hosts and drivers to take turns putting on a tea once a month.

By working together, volunteers create a monthly schedule of meet-ups for older guests who might not otherwise even get to leave their homes, giving them a regular get-together to look forward to every few weeks.

And because the effort is spread between a group of like-minded fellow volunteers, the time commitment is really not that great. For hosts, perhaps a matter of hours once every six months.

Put simply, each group gives isolated older folk something to look forward to once a month, it takes hardly any time, it feels amazing to do it, and there are usually eclairs.

They’ve helped over 100,000 older people enjoy life more since they founded and, I don’t mind telling you, that gives me a really big lump in my throat. I'm so glad to have played my small part in it.

So why is that selfish?

For one thing, the tea parties are great fun! Guests and volunteers of all ages getting together to chat over a cuppa and cake, and you meet some amazing people.

I’ve enjoyed chatting to Sandra about her passion for Cliff Richard and life modelling; been inspired by Joy talking about her extensive solo travels around the globe; and moved by Tom, talking about his sadness when his wife was moved into a home. I've bought a big birthday cake for an 80-year-old lady who said, without Re-Engage, she'd have been marking the day at home, alone. (Names changed to protect identity.)

They say that ‘those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves’ and I definitely find that’s true; leaving each tea party with a big smile, a sense of satisfaction, and a full tummy to boot.

But that’s not the reason I feel self-serving

The reason is that I’ll be old one day too. I’ll probably be a widow like my mum. And unlike my amazing mum, who is the friendliest and most resilient lady in the world, I think I’ll probably struggle with loneliness.

So I volunteer with Re-Engage because I’d like someone to do that for me when I’m older. I see myself in the eyes of our older guests.

And I don’t mean that I’m seeking repayment in a karmic sense, hoping that the universe will reward me in a few decades time when I might need this service myself.

I mean it in a very literal sense.

I want to go to Re-Engage tea parties when I’m old. And the only way that will happen is if volunteers like me and their many others continue to help the charity to deliver their lifeline to older people in the community, to grow their numbers, raise awareness, swell their funds and help them continue into the future.

And if not me, who?

There is no ideal person, time or place to volunteer.

I have a family. I’m both cash- and time-poor. Sometimes I really need to go and do a Tesco shop rather than volunteer. But all those challenges pale into comparison of the problems faced by the isolated older people we support.

And who am I to complain that we’ve run out of milk on a Sunday afternoon when faced with wonderful community elders who haven’t left the house all month.

So yes, I’m selfish. I want tea and I want cake and I want friends of all ages. Now and in the future. And that’s why I volunteer. Because today it is just good fun but in the future it might be an essential lifeline.

So go out there and be selfish. Be the change you want to see in the world. Whatever your particular fear for the future, help to fix it.

Ditch the plastic. Help the homeless. Pick litter. Become a cat cuddler at the local shelter. Even eat cake for charity like me… Because we CAN make the world a better place and we WILL feel the benefit in time.

So join me...make our world a better place, one slice of cake at a time.


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