Amid the busy, social whirl of the festive season, for some people Christmas is a difficult time.
Many elderly people find themselves isolated and lonely – not just at Christmas, but all year round.
That’s where Contact the Elderly comes in.
The charity – which offers tea, cake and most importantly, company, to older people – has a simple solution to a growing problem.
Volunteers provide tea parties which take place once a month on a Sunday afternoon, helping those aged 75 and over who live alone to get out of the house and socialise.
The charity’s network has expanded over the years as word spreads about their invaluable work.
Nationally, a vast network of more than 1300 volunteers currently helps 1000 people across Scotland.
The volunteers are split into three roles.
The hosts invite people into their homes for the tea party; drivers pick up the guests and keep in touch to make sure they can attend; and a co-ordinator who keeps it all ticking along smoothly.
Falkirk has an active, well-organised group, run by Anne Martin, says Caroline McGinlay, the volunteer co-ordinator for the south of Scotland.
Said Caroline: “The Falkirk area has a very strong group, with about five guests at the moment. “That’s about average for our tea parties. The volunteer drivers all stay for the tea too, so it can get too large.
“But the fact that the drivers stay means the relationship develops and you find real friendships developing.
“It also helps make it an inter-generational thing, because all you need to be a driver is a current driver’s licence, so we have drivers in their 20s and 30s.
“Mind you, we also have drivers in their 70s and 80s, who are older than the people they are taking to tea!
“It becomes like a family,” said Caroline. “Sometimes the hosts have young children who will get involved, by either helping to serve or maybe even doing a wee turn if they play an instrument or something.”
The charity is always keen to hear about elderly people who would benefit from a bit of company.
Likewise, they are always keen to hear from people willing to host a tea party at least once a year.
Those who do volunteer find the work so rewarding that some people even volunteer with more than one group.
“That’s not the norm,” says Caroline. “Once a month is absolutely fine, but it does happen.
“Some people might wonder what difference we can make to people just once a month, but the truth is that for somebody on their own it makes all the difference in the world.”
“It’s a simple, cost-effective idea but when you’re out talking to people, you realise that it really does touch their lives and it is really worthwhile.”
But as well as always looking out for new volunteers, the charity is also very aware that there are many lonely elderly people who would appreciate their services but have not been in touch.
That’s why they have started a new campaign, ‘Be Our Guest’, which is encouraging people to help identify those in their local community who would enjoy the tea parties.
Morna O’ May, Head of Service – Scotland, for Contact the Elderly said: “It is incredibly difficult for someone who is older, and often isolated, to reach out and ask for help.
“We work with agencies throughout Scotland to help us identify who might benefit from our services but we know there are more and are encouraging those to help us reach out to people in their community who would benefit from the chance to enjoy a bit of a blether over a tasty afternoon tea”.
The feedback, they say, is overwhelmingly positive.
One guest at the tea party told the charity: “It is such a relief for me to come here today.
“I feel as if I’ve been swimming and struggling to get to the surface but now it’s easy to swim!”
For the volunteers too, they find friendship and a feeling that they are making a huge difference.
One said: “It is such a pleasure to be around the guests who are all lovely and still motivated to get out and meet other people. They were all very inspirational.”
If you would like to volunteer as a driver or host, or you know someone who would benefit, please get in touch. Once a month, usually on a Sunday, a volunteer host welcomes a group of six to eight people into their home. Usually, they open their doors once a year, laying on afternoon tea and a warm atmosphere. However, the charity’s drivers and older guests remain the same, so over the months and years, acquaintances turn into friends.
There are usually three to five drivers in a group and there are sometimes also one or two reserve drivers to cover for holidays and emergencies.
Technically, all you need is a full driver’s licence, valid insurance and access to a car – but ideally, they are looking for people who enjoy listening, are able to chat easily with older people and have a good sense of humour. The charity also asks volunteers to supply two references and takes out a Disclosure and Barring service check (DBS) or a PVG.
The only essentials to become a tea party host are a big teapot, a downstairs / ground floor toilet and easy access to your house (e.g. not too many steps to the front door). You also need enough seating for eight older people.
The co-ordinator’s role is vital as they have to keep everything running smoothly. They must be organised and keep everyone informed, planning the monthly host schedule, helping with PGV checks and liaising with new volunteers and guests. find out more
To find out more about volunteering, contact Morna O’May, 01786 871264 or morna.o’firstname.lastname@example.org. To refer a potential older guest call Freephone 0800 716 543, visit www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk or email email@example.com.