Befriending – More Than Just a Cup of Tea

Loneliness can be seen as one of the greatest health concerns we face, increasing the risk of depression, high blood pressure, cognitive decline and coronary heart disease. It is also on the rise, and half a million older people currently go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.*

We spoke to Rachel Hill, CEO of local charity Befriend, about their mission to tackle loneliness in Ealing, some of the amazing transformations they've seen, and what becoming a 'befriender' is all about. The Soma Room is proud to support this amazing Ealing-based charity, and is fundraising on their behalf as we train for the Ealing Half Marathon on the 26th of September. 

Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Could you tell me a little bit more about befriending - what it is, what the benefits are and why someone would want to become a befriender?

Yes, of course. We have a slogan we like to use which says, "Befriending: more than just a cup of tea," because we feel that people often think that it's just about having a cup of tea with someone and that's all there is to it. But it's much more than that. It can be life-changing - both for the client we're visiting and the volunteer befriender who's doing it.

It's somebody visiting because they want to, not because they're paid to be there. A lot of people we visit don't have family and the only people they see are those who are paid to be there - a care worker, for example, or a district nurse or their GP. Quite often, those might be the only people they have contact with.

A befriender may be recruited, but they choose to be there, and they enjoy spending time with the client. Whilst they might have a cup of tea with them, it's very person-centered and they do all sorts of things together depending on the client’s interests. We really encourage people to go out wherever possible, and do something they might not have done before.

To be honest, the real success would be if the clients didn't need us anymore because they've made other friends - that’s our target. To introduce people to a local group that they might join if they're able to, like a reading or yoga group where they can make other friends and connections. A long-term goal for a lot of people would be that they’re no longer lonely and don’t need a befriender. 

If a person is housebound that's not going to happen, but there's other ways that we can support them to live as full a life as possible. I know one of our befrienders brings a different film round each week and that's something that they really enjoy doing together. Or reading the same book and then having a chat about it, or playing games together. There's so much more than just popping round and sitting with a cup of tea and having a chat.

The volunteers say that they've gained experience, but they've also gained a friend. Whilst it's a boundaried friendship - different to an everyday friend you might have - they benefit from having that person in their life, and they hear stories and gain wisdom from people who are older. Or even sometimes younger, because it's not always an older person that we're supporting.

That’s interesting - can you talk more about the kinds of people who seek out befriending services and how you connect people together?

We have a few different projects now. BEfriend has been going since 1994, and historically we were known for supporting older people - at one point over 85% of our clients were over 70. That's what people think of when they think of befriending; they think it's an older person who's lonely and isolated. Our core project is still older people but currently around 30% are younger.

Another project that we set up about three years ago now is called Linked Minds, which is our specialist mental health befriending project. We set this up because we were getting a lot of referrals for people with quite complex mental health problems. They need a befriender, but we realized that there needed to be more training and support provided for these kinds of clients. 

So, we set up a mental health befriending project. We recruited a new member of staff, a mental health practitioner, and we train volunteers who are quite often doing counseling or psychotherapy at university, so they've got that going alongside as well.

With Linked Minds we are currently supporting about 25 people weekly, but we've got about 15 on the waiting list that we're going to be matching up very soon. Those are people who are lonely because of their mental health problems. This has increased over the last year, as many people have not been able to go out, and a lot of activities they may have done before have stopped. They've become isolated because of the mental health problems they've been experiencing.

The volunteering for this project is a lot more structured. We say it's for a year, and we ask clients what they’d like to achieve over the year. The aim is that after a year they don't need us anymore because we've introduced them to other people, they've gained confidence and they've got involved in things in the community.

This project really is a success. We see some amazing success stories of people who prior to being referred to us weren't leaving the house, who after a year could just get on a bus and go off somewhere by themselves. One lady found a yoga group and started going on her own, and she was somebody that wouldn't leave the house before. We’ve seen people whose lives have really been transformed because of befriending.

One woman in particular had a daughter who she didn’t have a huge amount of contact with, but they rebuilt their relationship over the time that we were supporting her. The daughter asked what happened - because, she said "My mum has had all sorts. She's had medication, she's had counseling." She'd even had electro-convulsion therapy, which is the most extreme kind of treatment, because she was so unwell. Her daughter was asking, "What's happened? Nothing's worked, but now she's like a different lady." But it was just befriending, and the power of that connection. Having a connection with somebody made such a huge difference. 

That's an incredible story. What does training your volunteers entail? 

All of our volunteers have the same training to start with. They all have to do a safeguarding adults online course, and then a day's befriending training with us, which talks about the difference between being a friend or carer and being a befriender. It talks about boundaries and conversation starters, all those sorts of things. It’s a very interactive day course.

And then if people are going on to do Linked Minds, they do an additional mental health training course before they go and visit people. They also have supervision with a member of staff throughout the time that they're befriending as well.

One of our other projects is called Carers Short Breaks, and this is for people who support a family member over the age of 50, and who struggle to get time for themselves. We provide a volunteer who will spend about three hours with the person they’re supporting. It's not much, but just three hours will allow them to maybe go out and do something for themselves once a week, knowing that there's somebody there.

As volunteers they're not providing personal care, but they’re spending time with someone who just needs somebody with them. It also allows the carer to feel more comfortable knowing that they're not on their own for that time. So, we have another training course for volunteers who are doing that project.

And then we also have a dementia training course which allows volunteers who are going to be visiting somebody with dementia to get an understanding of how to best support them, with a bit of background to dementia as a whole as well.

It sounds like there’s a great deal of support and training. How long would a befriender work with someone, and do you have volunteers befriending multiple people at once? 

We have some, but mostly it's one-to-one. We always ask that volunteers commit for a year. We know that sometimes things are beyond our control, but if somebody says "I'd like to do it for three months," that's not for us. Quite often, people do many, many years. We've got volunteers who have been with us over 10 years and have supported multiple people. 

The other thing we've recently set up is telephone befriending, for people who don’t want someone to visit but would just like a chat. We had started to look into it before COVID, but when everything stopped suddenly and there were so many hugely lonely and isolated people, we were asked by Ealing Council to set up a telephone befriending service.

We had many, many referrals over that time, some of whom no longer need us. But others have stayed on, and we offer that as a support for people who just want a weekly phone call with somebody. 

It’s great that you were able to play such an important role in Ealing through the pandemic. What qualities would you say make a good befriender? What do you tend to look for in your volunteers?

We look for someone who has listening skills, and we provide training for this as well. It's really important that people know how to listen. Empathy is another important quality. We're aware that it can't always be taught, but I think most people choose to do this kind of volunteering because they are able to empathise with the people that they are supporting.

They don't need anything else really. They just have to want to go and visit somebody and be able to give that time and listen to them, and not be afraid of silences. Sometimes people find it hard to chat a lot, and we train our volunteers that they don't need to fill every gap with conversation. It's okay to have some quiet for a while, because they've still got somebody with them rather than sitting on their own.

It sounds like training that a lot of people could benefit from. In what ways can people support BEfriend and the work you do? 

We're always looking for more volunteers. At the moment we’re particularly looking for volunteers for the Carers Short Breaks project. This would be somebody supporting two people: the client of course, but also the carer by allowing them to have a break, which makes such a difference.

We’re also asking people to donate monthly to us. A lot of larger charities have big monthly giving campaigns, but it’s something we only started fairly recently. We currently have eight people donating £10 a month - you have to start somewhere! We are really trying to encourage people to support a local charity - larger charities are important and do amazing work, but it’s also nice to support something local. Donations make a huge difference to us, because even though our volunteers donate their time for free, there’s a lot that goes into support and training, as well as the admin costs, DBS checks, referrals and all the other things we have to do to provide a safe and effective service. 

We get a small amount of council funding, which is specifically for the Carers Short Breaks project, but we don't charge for anything. We just seek funding to cover our costs. So, if anybody wants to donate, they can do so through you guys who are doing this amazing half marathon, and if anybody would like to sign up to be one of our monthly givers, they can do that on our website, which is

Fantastic, thank you. Is there anything else that you'd like people to know before we finish up? 

Over the last year, the people that have been affected the most by COVID are the people who were already lonely. There's a report from the Office of National Statistics which says that the people who felt most lonely prior to COVID now have even higher levels of loneliness, and that the adults most at risk of being lonely have one of the following characteristics; being young, living alone, low income, and having a mental health condition. 

We support people who were already lonely, who have now become lonelier over the last year, and we also support people with mental health conditions who have been hugely impacted by COVID. Family carers aren’t mentioned in the report, but we see them as being particularly at risk. They may have had some support prior to COVID which has now stopped, and they are increasingly lonely. So, we are doing all we can to support these people who have been affected the most over the last year and a half.

Thank you very much for your time, Rachel. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.


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