Meet the Facilitators

William: Gentlemen's group

Retired bus conductor William has been running a weekly phone link-up with John and Victor for more than a year now.

"After I'd been retired for four or five years, I wanted to do some voluntary work," William explains. "I came here in 1960 from Saint Lucia and it's been good, so I thought it was time to give something back."

William approached Elders Voices, which supports elderly people in the Brent area, and it was their Befriending Co-ordinator who put him in touch with Community Network. He went on to run our gentlemen's group.

"It's not difficult. It's just talking to people as if you've known them for a while. We talk on Monday afternoons from five o'clock, for an hour. We pick a subject and it can be anything - what's going on in the news or something like that. "I've not met John in person, but I met Victor three weeks ago in Brixton. I heard him before I saw him. Just by the way he laughed, I knew it was Victor. He's a jolly old chap."

William was recently presented with an award by the Mayor of Brent for his work with elderly people. As well as running our telephone group, William regularly takes out a wheelchair user and assists an 80-year-old with mobility problems to attend his Mosque.

"I enjoy volunteering," he says. "I find it interesting being with the people."

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Margaret: In Touch prayer group

At 86, Margaret is still a regular church-goer, and sees facilitating a telephone prayer group as a good way to continue her work with the Roman Catholic Church now that she is less active than she used to be.

Before retiring, Margaret worked for more than 20 years in an NHS renal unit. Helping sick people has been an important part of her life.

"When you go to church regularly, you see who is ill or in hospital and you hear people's problems. I used to take Holy Communion to people's homes, but at my age I can't do that so much," she explains.

Margaret and two other ladies decided they needed to find a way to bring prayer meetings to people at home. So, they approached In Touch, a phone-based befriending scheme run by Camden Council in conjunction with Community Network. The result was the In Touch prayer group, which links up every Friday afternoon for half an hour.

"We started with just the three of us, but in the end we had seven or eight," Margaret says. "Everyone looks forward to Friday at two o'clock and every time we meet, we always try to say the rosary - even if there are only two of us. To us it's really serious. We pray to help people."

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Maria: General group

As manager of Kingston Volunteer Centre, Maria regularly hears from organisations looking for volunteers. When she heard about Community Network's phone befriending groups about six months ago, she thought they were a wonderful idea and wanted to get personally involved.

"I have a family - children aged 17 and 22, a dog and a husband - and I'm busy at work. But I could do this and fit it in," Maria says.

"I used to be a volunteer gardener at my local grave yard, as I could take my dog. But it was a bit on my own. This is much better, as it allows me to stay with my dog, but be with people. "I have a mixed phone group of five older people, who all live on their own and just want to chat. "They phone me on my mobile for an hour every Wednesday. It's so easy - I've even taken calls out shopping and in the pub. I just have to sit down somewhere quietly, to give it all my concentration."

Maria has found the group very rewarding and enjoyed meeting one of her group members recently at an event. "It was great to put a face to a name and voice. I'd had this vision of him looking a bit like Alfred Hitchcock, but he's nothing like it!", she laughs.

Maria is keen to encourage other people to become facilitators. "I would advise anyone who would like to volunteer to do this. It's so fulfilling," she says.

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Don: Fit as a Fiddle groups

Don, a retired divorce lawyer, facilitates phone-based courses with Community Network, as part of Age UK's national Fit as a Fiddle programme.

As a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer, Don has been heavily involved in tutoring self-management and health courses since attending one of the courses run by the Expert Patient Programme. He also runs courses for Arthritis Care, who introduced him to the Community Network scheme.

Don's Fit as a Fiddle groups - he has completed two so far - are designed as six-week health courses aimed at people with arthritis, who are over 65 and isolated. "It's a very simple course, covering healthy eating, exercise and keeping your mind alive," Don explains.

"I think the courses are brilliant. It's easy to facilitate and not rocket science. I read up the manual a few minutes before and the group literally runs itself. I start with breathing exercises, then I chuck in the questions and leave them to it."

In practice, the phone discussions are so popular that both groups have continued beyond the six-week cut-off, giving group members more time to enjoy the contact of a good conversation and access to our support.

"Recently, I was talking to an 86-year-old lady in one group who occasionally goes shopping with a carer and attends a day centre two days a week. For the rest of the time she is on her own. She told us that she wanted more to read, so we were able to sort out a library for her," Don says.

Don is very happy to promote the scheme to other volunteers. "I'm a great enthusiast. It's such a brilliant idea. There are no geographical boundaries. Modern technology and communications mean that we can talk as if we're in the same room. I live in the north west of England, but the participants so far have lived in the south - places like Portsmouth and London.

"I received excellent training from Community Network - from an extremely knowledgeable and sympathetic tutor."

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Edna: Carers' grous

As a former care worker and now tenants' representative at a sheltered housing scheme, Edna has done a fair bit of looking out for other people's interests over the years. She is now the facilitator of our carers' telephone group.

"All my group members are carers or ex-carers," says Edna. "They tend to be pretty elderly and they do seem rather isolated.

"They haven't been unhappy in their lives - most have been with a partner for a long time and it's quite loving really. But, at the end of it, when they lose their partner or their partner's ill, they find they haven't built up another life and their families always seem busy.

"They definitely seem to benefit from talking to people in the same situation. They have a lot in common, even when they are different nationalities. If you are looking after someone with Alzheimer's, for example, you can get really tired and feel guilty about it. It helps to hear other people say the same."

Edna finds running the group quite a challenge sometimes. "They all need to talk, not just listen, but sometimes some people are a bit prominent and you have make room for the others.

"With people this age, they also tend to get a lot of ailments themselves, so the group changes. I have one person who hasn't come for a while and another who is ill in hospital. So though I'd like about eight in the group, I have four at the moment."

Despite the challenges, Edna is clear about the value of these groups. "It's definitely a worthwhile thing to do," she says.

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Alison: Synagogue group

Alison, who is the welfare co-ordinator for her local synagogue, led a trial telephone group for elderly Jewish people during 2012.

"When the project approached us, we thought we'd give it a go. I wasn't going to be the facilitator to start with, but I did the training because the sessions were short of people and when the volunteer dropped out because she got a job, I was asked to take the group over," Alison recalls.

"It was supposed to be a six-week trial, with people from the local synagogue, but it actually continued for several months and eventually included people who weren't Jewish.

"We had five members after one person didn't start and another dropped out, but not every week, so it could be a bit haphazard sometimes. They were all quite elderly and not very well, and we decided that half an hour was really enough.

"I think it was very much appreciated and it was a good experience. But, for me, the main thing that came out of it was that two of them are now keeping in touch with each other. They have very different backgrounds, but they found each other very interesting. They are both very isolated, but one lives in London and the other in Scotland."

Looking back, Alison feels that the success of a group depends a lot on the people in it, which can vary a lot: "But I think it is a good idea and I would recommend it."

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