One of my favourite Cyrenians stories is about an older gentleman called Harry. He had been referred to our Befriending service because was really struggling to get out of his house and so was losing his confidence. As is the way of our service, we asked him what he would like to do that he didn’t feel able to do at present. He said simply “I’d like to walk round to the polling station and vote in the independence referendum in person”.
The vote was some weeks away so the volunteer befriender agreed to come round and do some practice walks to the polling station. The early attempts didn’t make it all the way but they persevered and on the day of the referendum Harry managed to walk all the way round and put his vote in the ballot box himself.
It was a great achievement for some-one whom a few weeks earlier wasn’t confident that he could even cross over the door of his house and make it down to the end of his path, not just because of his mobility challenges but because he’d begun to lose confidence in himself. Which is why the real punch line of the story is not that he got to vote, great as that was, but because on one of his practice walks Harry met a friend he hadn’t seen in decades. They struck up in conversation as if they had met the day before and now see each other on a regular basis. Harry’s life, and that of his pal, have been transformed by the simple reconnecting of the friendship. Voting mattered to Harry, but his renewed friendship made him feel he mattered.
A recent survey in the USA has shown that the number of people respondents felt they could confide in to about anything had dropped from 5 to 2. Amongst older men it was usually 1 – their wives. This is a crisis of epidemic proportions. We are not autonomous being; we are social beings – we find our meaning the relationships we have where we experience acceptance and meaningfulness as human beings. Social isolation can reduce life expectancy significantly. But the solution lies not in more paid staff doing the support – important a role as that can play; but as one old woman said to me when I visited her, “you are the first person I have talked to this week who wasn’t paid to be here”. That why one of the deeply significant aspects of our befriending service is that our befrienders are volunteers. That’s not a cost saving is an added value
The simplest of moments – a word of inquiry, a knock on the door to check up on an older person, a quick chat in the street, an offer not to go for the messages but to go with them for their messages can be life giving; for us all.