“I will never forget the day we had to suspend the tea parties. I had been on an almost empty train to Edinburgh and the country felt like it was closing down. It was the responsible thing, but it was heart breaking. The ways in which our groups stayed in touch with the older people has been both moving and familiar - we have some very generous hearted volunteers here and are very lucky.” Meryl, Re-engage CEO

At the start of the pandemic we had decisions to make which were both difficult and inevitable. Suspending tea party groups was immensely sad and we had no idea that this would last such a long time. In the face of great uncertainty, we moved forward with our strategy with renewed determination to reach more older people and to diversify our work. This clarity allowed us to respond rapidly to the shifting environment. Thanks to the flexibility and generosity of our funders and the support of hundreds of volunteers, we were able to set up our national telephone befriending service, call companions, within a matter of weeks.

Call companions is now two years old and has been a lifeline for older people. Most who take part say they rarely have contact with others and don’t feel part of a community. Even those in touch with family members say the pandemic has intensified their feelings of loneliness and isolation, making daily life almost unbearable.

The good news is that, for the overwhelming majority, just six months of regular phone calls – and the chance to chat to a new, supportive friend – has made a profoundly positive difference. In a recent survey, 62% of those receiving calls reported feeling happier and less isolated. The results also show that 40% of older people who join call companions rate their happiness as low, but after six months this falls to just 6%. 

Many of the first call companions were existing Re-engage volunteers, including Maurice and Trudy, who started making their calls two years ago.

Maurice is clearly a natural communicator:

What prompted you to want to become a volunteer?

I lost my wife about five years ago, which felt like my own kind of lockdown to be honest. I saw a Re-engage leaflet about volunteering with a local tea party group and I thought it was something I could do. I find it easy to talk to people and volunteering can help with your own sense of loneliness, a reason to get out of the house once in a while and meet other people.

How did you become a call companion?

I was in the process of becoming a volunteer driver with my local tea party group, but just as I was about to get started, so did the pandemic.

Re-engage contacted me and asked if I would consider volunteering with a new telephone befriending service they were setting up as an alternative to the tea parties. I’d never heard of call companions, but the lady explained that it would be calling a lonely and isolated older person to have a chat with them once a week or so. I realised that I was a little bit lonely and sad because of my loss and I thought if someone is in a similar situation, maybe we could help each other.

Are you still matched with the same person?

I’m still with the same match and we live in totally different parts of the country. I guess that’s the beauty of call companions and it doesn’t matter to me at all.

She is 91 and doesn’t get out and about too much. Her son and daughter in law, who I think moved in because of the pandemic, help with the shopping and her son takes her out for lunch regularly, so she is more fortunate than a lot of people. However, they do their own thing at times and as she says, it is good to talk to someone outside of the family.

She certainly seems to look forward to our chats and she thanks me at the end of every call.

What sort of things do you talk about?

We just have a general chit chat, it could be about the weather of course, what we’ve been doing, if we’ve been out anywhere and about with our families, especially my children and grandchildren. She will also tell me about her husband and the old days, where she stayed and what they used to do.

At about the same time as I started to volunteer I also had the chance to research old friends from my high school on Facebook. This has given me a lot to talk about with my call companion and she especially loves the fact that as a result, I am now in touch with someone I used to go out with.

What were your experiences of the pandemic?

I knew I wanted to volunteer with lonely people having lost my wife a few years ago and experienced my own kind of lock down. I'm sure the pandemic has made a lot of people think about what it's like to be alone. My call companion was isolated long before the pandemic started.

At the time we talked about how people were affected, with their loved ones contracting COVID, losing jobs, having to stay at home - it was such an extraordinary time. In fact, we still talk about COVID from time to time and what’s going to happen.

What do you think are the key skills needed to be a call companion?

I think you need to be happy speaking to strangers, as this is what you are at first. It’s important to be approachable and for you both to understand the importance of speaking in confidence.

Trudy was an experienced tea party volunteer driver and host when the pandemic started.

Like many volunteers, one of her first concerns was for the older guests because she knew how much they looked forward to the monthly tea parties.

With so much uncertainty and fear of what was going to happen next, what made you take the time to volunteer as a call companion?

It was a worrying time. We were all finding it hard, even those of us lucky enough to be married or have a partner. I thought it must be so awful for those stuck in the house and not being able to go anywhere, because I knew how much our tea party guests enjoyed getting out.

My mother was 84 and very isolated because at that time I was living in a different city, my brother was in Scotland, and we weren’t allowed to travel to different areas. I would call and Facetime her. It made me think about the people who couldn’t get out.  I love to talk, so I knew I wanted to become a call companion volunteer straight away.

Who were you matched with?

I was matched with a lovely gentleman who was unfortunately housebound. We would talk about my family and he told me about what he used to do and what his wife used to do. We were able to talk about gardening and whilst he couldn’t get out and work in the garden anymore, I think he enjoyed me asking for his advice on things. Older people have a lot of experience which can benefit a lot of us.

Are you still call companions?

We’re not. I moved house and it was so busy that I felt it was the right time to pause. We are still occupied with the renovations, but I would like to be matched with someone, as I’ve definitely got time to make a phone call, we can all make time for that can’t we?

I think it was a fantastic idea, I still do, but I think it’s so important to be a good communicator and understand that the person you are talking to may struggle because they are lonely and isolated.

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0800 716543

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020 7240 0630