For almost two years now, I’ve been volunteering with Age UK. In the pre-COVID days, I’d help facilitate Older People’s Reference Group meetings. These meetings were designed to amplify the voices of older people, ensuring that they were heard by the visiting presenters who were there to consult with the group.
Now, my activities are restricted to remote volunteering. Since the first lockdown back in March of 2020, I’ve been a telephone befriender. Every Tuesday afternoon, I have the pleasure of speaking to a lady that I’ve been matched with, who has been shielding due to health concerns. We catch-up for half an hour each week and put the world to rights! I’ve learnt so much from her and the experience – here are just some of those lessons:
Listening is an art
Through being a telephone befriender, I have learnt how to really listen. I have learnt that listening doesn’t mean rushing to offer a solution, which is often so tempting! It means giving another person the space to say what they need to say – regardless of whether or not you can help them. People need to feel heard and sometimes this is a solution in and of itself. This is a lesson learnt through volunteering but it could equally be applied to all of the relationships we treasure.
It’s important to maintain a sense of perspective
It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves in lockdown. While it is important to acknowledge that we are all going through something difficult and that we should be kind to ourselves, it’s also important to recognise that there will always be someone else who is worse off. I’ve found myself lamenting over not being able to go to the gym, or not being able to meet the amazing team I’ve hired over the last few months. Then I speak to my telephone friend and hear how she hasn’t left the house in weeks and that her surgery has been pushed back, due to NHS resources needing to be focused on COVID, and my worries pale in comparison. We should remind ourselves to be grateful for what we do have – that gratitude will buoy us through the coming weeks and months.
Society needs to step up in its treatment of older people
Before “lockdown” was a word in our vocabulary, it was very difficult for people to imagine what it would be like to be stuck at home with no social life and no plans. Having gone through the last year together, I hope that we – as a society – have a newfound empathy for the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness amongst older people. Even before COVID, Age UK estimated that there were 1.4 million chronically lonely older people in England alone. The loneliness that my telephone friend is experiencing has been worsened by COVID but – as an older person living alone with multiple health conditions – her loneliness certainly isn’t new. We all have a vested interest in creating a world we want to age into and tackling loneliness in later life is a big part of that.
It gives you a sense of purpose
Volunteering with Age UK has given me an enormous sense of purpose over the last couple of years. In a small way, the weekly calls have become a highlight for me – we brighten each other’s day and give each other a sense of continuity, set against the turbulence of the pandemic. In a big way, my volunteering with Age UK has inspired action in other parts of my life. I ran the London Marathon 2020 as a golden bond Age UK runner (the first virtual London Marathon! You can see the video we made about it here) and I’ll be running the London Marathon 2021 as part of the team too – I’m really hoping that it won’t need to be virtual! My volunteering with Age UK also shaped the idea that became The Joy Club, which I’m now dedicated to making a success.
As we enter a new year and new lockdown – many of us seeking a renewed sense of purpose – I would encourage you to consider volunteering with Age UK (find out more here) or any other organisation of your choice. If you’re a member of The Joy Club, you can take a look at the ‘volunteering’ category to see if anything catches your eye. We all have so much to offer – and so much to learn – and volunteering is a great way to celebrate that.
Hannah Thomson, Founder CEO