A Friend In Need
The Highlands can be a lonely place to live, but as Alex Corlett has been finding out, Distance Befrienders are trying to change that . . .
Meet the charity combatting loneliness in the Highlands
EVERY YEAR thousands of tourists come to the Scottish Highlands to experience the peace and solitude. But for some people who live there it can sometimes be too big a place. Of the many people who call the Highlands home, a few find themselves alone and isolated. Which is where Linda Kerr comes in!
“Distance Befriending is part of Befrienders Highland and it recruits, trains and supports volunteers to befriend people who are lonely and isolated as a result of mental ill health. It’s run throughout the Highland region with the help of volunteers who contact the ‘friends’ – which is what we call the individuals we speak to.
“The volunteer will either call by telephone, write to them or e-mail them. The idea is that this provides ongoing support and maintains social contact for those who feel lonely and isolated.”
Linda’s able to do the work from home, which affords her the flexibility to fit it in around other commitments.
“That’s the beauty of it. I can do it from my home, by e-mail, by telephone or by letter. So I can actually contribute to this.”
It’s amazing what a lifeline just the occasional point of contact can be. Linda’s built up some long-term friendships over this time, and has kept in touch with folk for a number of years.
“At the moment I am in contact with one individual whom I’ve been writing to for seven and a half years. She is a woman who is now more or less housebound, so is very isolated.
“I also do senior volunteer work, supporting other volunteers. I phone them periodically to check that things are going OK between them and their friends.”
GETTING involved in the service was an easy decision. “Several years ago I read this little article in a local magazine in Fort William when I was visiting my mum. I thought it sounded amazing. I knew I could contribute to it, so I applied. I went through the training, then I became a volunteer.”
Folk who do so are then matched with people who seem a good fit.
“When they’re training people up, they take into account your interests and try to pair you with folk of similar interests.”
The Befrienders have been doing this work for a while.
“Befrienders Highland have been around for about twenty years. Distance Befrienders has been around for about six or eight years and what made it possible was the funding from the Big Lottery Fund. Without it, Distance Befriending wouldn’t have got off the ground.
“One of our concerns now is, with the Big Lottery Fund having finished, we’re urgently looking for other sources of funds to help us keep it going.”
Befrienders Highland is a face-to-face service, with people spending time together over a cup of coffee or at a cinema or café. Distance Befriending is an offshoot where it’s all done through phone, letter or e-mail. It makes it easier to reach really remote folk – plus it’s easier for volunteers to find the time for it.
The direct contact with its beneficiaries means that the charity is always very conscious of how well it’s working. Responses from “friends” show how well the connection is going and make it easy to monitor. But even then they go the extra mile to make sure the “friend” is getting best value.
“As a volunteer I have regular contact with the co-ordinators, the actual workers in Distance Highland Befriending. You have a trial period with a ‘friend’ and if that trial period goes well, there’s feedback from both myself and the ‘friend’, then you continue on the longer term.
“Once that trial period is over they do a review every six months, so I’m contacted to say how I feel the friendship has progressed and the ‘friend’ is likewise contacted.
“The feedback that I have got and obviously all the other volunteers have got has been very positive. It’s regular contact. It’s not therapy – it’s just two people connecting, helping at a time of need.
“We talk or write about all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s to do with their mental health, other times it’s just light-hearted banter – just a regular friendship in that sense.”
And just like a friendship, it soon doesn’t feel like work.
“Oh, absolutely not! I would say over the years I’ve got as much out of it as my ‘friends’ have, because they’re taking an interest in me as much as I’m taking an interest in them.
“It’s building their confidence, keeping them in contact with the outside world, which they might not feel comfortable doing on a face-toface basis.”
AS it’s an area that’s one of the least densely populated in Europe, I wonder if volunteers are ever tempted to encourage people back into the Highlands’ few towns.
“No, not at all. They may be lonely and isolated, but they may have other family commitments or work commitments that keep them there. I think living in remote and rural areas can be testing for many of us, but it’s not necessarily very easy to uproot oneself and move into a town. And in some ways towns and cities can be even more isolating.”
With the flexibility of the work, befriending attracts a wide variety of people who feel able to contribute.
“The volunteers come from all walks of life – I’m a trainer and librarian, there are others who are homemakers, bricklayers, students, pilots and lawyers.”
And the Befrienders have the opportunity to get together and support each other as well – although this is obviously not without its own distance challenges!
“Sometimes we have a telephone conference and there are other occasions where we actually meet! When it was an anniversary two summers ago, we all – ‘friends’ and volunteers – met in Inverness for a celebration of people who had been volunteering.
“That was a big celebration and friends and volunteers alike were there, so it was lovely to meet other people who you’d been conversing with over the phone or writing to.”
Over recent years they’ve been able to start up some interest groups, too, giving people the opportunity to use the network to chat about their hobbies.
“There are stitching groups and creative writing – both a book group and a poetry group. That’s one of the initiatives we were able to do with the Lottery funding. Some of the pieces that people have been writing in the creative writing group are wonderful – and that’s both volunteers and friends. Writing is such a good way to express what’s going on in your body and mind. It’s a good way to get emotions out.” As we know well here in the “Friend”! The Befrienders service is going strong, but it is always looking for new recruits.
“Over the last six years we’ve trained about one hundred and sixty volunteers, and I think over the period we have been working we have supported around one hundred and eighty people at a distance. It’s making a big difference.”
It’s great when everyone can get together!
Twentieth birthday celebrations.
Linda and the team at the Befrienders Awards.
Thank you to the National Lottery Awards.
The volunteers undergo dementia training.