Many elderly people in Cork city find themselves living in areas surrounded by houses, surrounded by people, and yet they feel completely and utterly alone.
Retired, and possibly bereaved, these citizens can spend days on end without talking to anybody, or having any kind of social interaction at all.
That's where Friendly Call Cork comes in. The organisation has been up and running for more than six years now and the premise is simple – gather together details of elderly clients and ring them all once a day to check on them, see how they are, and have a bit of a chat.
The service has been going from strength to strength recently, and coordinator Brenda Barry says demand is as high as ever. At the moment they have roughly 130 clients who volunteers will place phone calls to every single day.
“We have a lady who gets dressed up every morning just to receive her phone call. It's so important to her,” said Brenda.
“And another man who we ring, he told us that he never knew the pain of loneliness could be so bad.”
But the service provided by Friendly Call Cork has become a beacon of hope for many – something to look forward to each day. Buoyed by this success, the organisers have paved the way for a massive expansion and a brand new service.
Together with older person's charity ALONE, the organisation is currently recruiting a whole new wave of volunteers who will start physically going to visit older people in their homes for one hour a week – or taking them out of the house for an hour to go for tea or help with getting groceries.
“We feel there's a demand for visitation for some people and for a volunteer to maybe call to people's houses on a regular basis. We're going to try for weekly, an hour a week, and see how that goes,” explained Brenda.
“It would be a separate service from our current call service, we would still be operating that as usual. For the people that we ring at the moment, it's so important. So for someone to call into you and sit down and have a chat... that level of social contact is so important.”
Brenda said that, in the past, volunteers have called to clients and maybe brought them to the shops or to medical appointments if necessary. She said there is a clear need for such a service to be rolled out on a more regular basis and not just during crisis periods such as the recent bus strikes.
“A lot of older people would have been used to getting the bus and for a lot of people it is kind of a social outlet for them as well. And without it they found they couldn't get out and about to meet people, not to mind the basics like get to appointments or do the shopping. So during the strike we did bring people to get their messages or get them to appointments,” said Brenda.
“But we had one man who never said anything to us about being in difficulty or needing transport, and he walked from Mahon to CUH for an appointment. He basically just couldn't afford a taxi. He was in his 60s. These were the things that older people were doing during the bus strike. They're the hidden stories behind what was going on.”
Though there is undeniably a practical aspect of having someone to help out, Brenda said the new visitation and befriending service is mainly about combating isolation in our growing population of older people.
“Loneliness is actually a serious health issue at this stage. Families are smaller these days, and people are busier, so you can see how elderly people would not have as much social contact now as they might have in the past,” she said.
“People out there are feeling real loneliness. We have 136 people on our call service at the moment who we ring every day and we have about 27 volunteers. And that will continue. We're hoping these two services will be able to run alongside each other.”
She encouraged any older people out there to get in touch if they would like either daily phone calls or weekly visits.
“We want to let older and vulnerable individuals know that we can now provide companionship to those who are socially isolated and alone,” said Brenda.
“Individuals can self-refer or can be referred by healthcare professionals, community groups, or family members and friends.”
The new visitation service is being funded through the IPB Community Engagement Fund. So far Friendly Call Cork has received €5,000 which will support the costs of piloting the scheme.
While the project is, as yet, in its infancy, a number of Friendly Call volunteers took part in a four-hour long Befriending Training course which ran in March.
Areas covered by the training included the impact of loneliness and isolation on health, defining the role of the befriender, and boundaries for volunteers.
A number of volunteers also recently completed Dementia Training at the Mercy Hospital Education Centre, as well as training on Falls Prevention hosted by the HSE Cork Falls Service. Further training is set to take place later in the summer.
Those involved in Friendly Call Cork have appealed for more volunteers to join the service.
While the organisation is always looking for more people to get involved with its phone call service – phoning up elderly and isolated people on a daily basis for a chat and to make a connection – the main drive at the moment is to get a whole new bunch of volunteers to roll out the new visitation service.
It is looking for people to volunteer to visit a specific elderly person, most likely in their local area, for one hour, once a week at a time that suits both parties.
“Basically what would happen is that I would visit with the person the first day and introduce them to the older person. They would be specifically matched up, either by geographical location or by interests. The times of the visits will be flexible, so it would be people who are working as well. It could be in the evening, for example, or at the weekend,” said coordinator Brenda Barry.
“Some people might want to stay in, or some might want to go for a cup of tea somewhere or a cup of coffee, they might want to go out, so it would be nice in that case if they can be taken out because some people can be very isolated in their houses on their own and if somebody was able to accompany them then that would be great. Some people might love to get out, and if there were any expenses on behalf of a volunteer, we would be able to reimburse them for that.”
Potential volunteers need to be friendly, chatty, and empathetic. An ability to listen well and an ability to talk to strangers are also necessary traits.
The idea for the new visitation service came about because older person's charity ALONE runs similar befriending services in Dublin and elsewhere across the country.
“We're not reinventing the wheel or anything, we're basing this on something that's already in existence, we're just bringing it to Cork,” said Brenda.
“There are pockets of people doing similar things all across the country in smaller areas and in rural areas. But I think that in the city there is a real need for this. There are people who are even more isolated that some in the country because in the rural areas people tend to look out for each other and there would be more of an effort made. But in urban areas you hear stories of people being found dead in their houses or in their apartments and them not being found for weeks. People can be very isolated.”
Feedback from the Dublin project has been fantastic so far, she explained.
“About 320 visits goes on in Dublin every week so there is a good number of volunteers – about 300 or 400. Visits go on every week and all year around.” It is hoped that this success can be replicated here in Cork.
Anyone interested in volunteering, or who would like to refer someone for a phone call or for visitation, can contract Brenda via 021-4301700 or 087-6366407 or email email@example.com.