Befriending calls to reduce social isolation

Written by Smera Nadeem, Isolation Reduction Project Manager, ELBA

March 2020 is highly notable for the start of lockdown in the UK. With the country closing its’ doors to social activities, having to stay at home and socially distance, it was a tough time for many. With a focus on the isolated elderly in the community, for many, this lockdown removed their only lifeline to connect with the world outside. Social isolation was further exacerbated with the many issues identified during this pandemic.

Challenge:ELBA, alongside our many community partners, was faced with the task of replacing this loss of social interaction in the midst of older people feeling hesitant, mistrustful and being digitally excluded; users were unable to dial in over Zoom as they had no devices, lacked the skills or had no connectivity – in most instances all three! Many did not own mobile phones or were uncomfortable/confused when it came to video calls and not having the in-person support from community staff on hand made it harder.

Befriending calls – a solution implemented by many of ELBA’s community partners was initially quite difficult to incorporate due to older people feeling anxious and having a general lack of trust when they were offered a chance to speak to someone new – a stranger. The community partners conveyed this feeling from their service users too. To tackle this hesitancy and lack of digital access, Challenge:ELBA introduced group befriending calls over telephone and Zoom, facilitated by corporate volunteers (befrienders) and 2 – 4 older people (befriendees) from the same community centres they attended.

“On our first call I think we were all a little nervous…

– a quote from a befriendee from Bonny Downs Community Association

Since then, with over 180 calls since April 2020 (and still ongoing), the friendships, appreciation and benefits experienced by befriendees and befrienders alike has been wonderful to witness, as put by one of our FCA volunteers:

“You think you’re helping others by volunteering and you rightly are. However, it’s easy to forget how those who we volunteer for help us!”

With International Friendship Day being celebrated at the end of this month on 30th July, it is the perfect time to celebrate the friendships that have blossomed with the group of befriendees who were complete strangers at one point. Feedback from volunteers has really highlighted this, for example, one of our Accenture volunteers said:

It’s really nice to see how these groups have developed new friendships!’

And a volunteer from Chaucer said:

“They are all such lovely people, and it was great to hear them talking and laughing with…the rest of the group.

A Citi volunteer described their time volunteering and the joy they got out of it:

“A true honour to have been invited into a group who had very apparently developed strong standing relationships through a difficult time! One thing I have learnt is how truly important it is to give time and be present. In such a fast paced world, it is so easy to get caught up in the busyness and forget to stop and allow for some stillness. Hitting pause however and taking undisturbed time to just talk can be totally transformative for everyone involved. A truly worthwhile experience that I would not hesitate to volunteer for again.

These feedback comments and testimonials have been great to receive during this difficult time and have really shown that even something which can seem small in the grand scheme of things, like having one phone call a week, has really added long-lasting value to the lives of our befriendees. The following words really demonstrate this – a group who started off as strangers, becoming friends, and now having solidified their friendship by meeting in person;

“The befriending calls have been a lifeline to me during lockdown. Speaking to different and interesting facilitators [corporate volunteers] of the calls and the great friendship I have found in [other befriendees on the call] … We talk openly and have laughter too. It was lovely to finally meet… you never realise what speaking to someone regularly does to lifting the spirit, so I felt like I knew them today already. It’s the first time I have experienced a friendship like it. Thank you to [Bonny Downs] and [ELBA] for organising the calls. You have made the experience of lockdown so much easier to get through, especially for those of us who live on our own. Long may the phone calls continue.

– a befriendee from Bonny Downs Community Association

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