Revealing, Recognising and Rewarding Positive Role Models

‘Virtual’ YOPEY Befriender is a winner for young and old, care homes and schools

A pioneering scheme that brings together elderly care home residents and teenage school students in friendship and companionship hopes to emerge from covid stronger than ever.

The charity YOPEY has survived the pandemic by making its YOPEY Befriender service ‘virtual’.

Its founder and chief executive, Tony Gearing MBE, said: “When care homes were the first places to lockdown and our young volunteers could no longer visit their elderly friends, I thought YOPEY might have to close.

“Then some young people contacted me and asked how can we stay in contact with the friends we have made at the care home? I thought – letters.”

Tony admits letter-writing was an old-fashioned idea with which many young people were unfamiliar, but the YOPEY Befrienders took to it, and added their own ideas.
Weeks into the first lockdown, a small army of young people were:
• writing letters that they peppered with photographs of their lives;
• creating activities, such as word searches and crosswords, and illustrating these;
• sharing art they had made with the elderly and telling what inspired them;
• making videos for YOPEY Virtual Variety Shows to be shown in care homes.

Ironically YOPEY went from working with about a dozen care homes face-to-face before coronavirus to supporting residents in over 1800 care homes nationwide. All the content created by the young people was received by the charity digitally, edited and sent on by the charity digitally to absolutely avoid transmitting coronavirus on surfaces.

“As new care homes heard about our free service during the pandemic, they would get in touch and ask if they could have a digital pack of YOPEY Befriender content to share with their residents,” explained Tony.

YOPEY has been able to give this support for free to the care homes because key funders – such as Mercers, a London livery company, Evelyn Trust, which supports wellbeing projects in Cambridgeshire, Comic Relief and the National Lottery – allowed YOPEY to switch their funding to ‘virtual’ befriending during the pandemic.

A freelance researcher has recently been paid by YOPEY to ask students, school leaders and key care home staff for their views about the impact virtual YOPEY Befriender has had during the pandemic. Students were also asked for their views on the mainly media led assumption, made early into the pandemic, that they were somehow part of Covid’s so-called ‘lost generation’?

“It was a big ask getting our stake holders on board to complete a survey while juggling the demands of running a care home, a school, or doing exams in the middle of a pandemic, and I thank all those who responded, taking the time to answer our questions,” said Tony.

By listening to those who successfully contributed to YOPEY Dementia Befriender – the scheme’s formal name – under unprecedented conditions, YOPEY can shape how best to move the scheme forward in a hopefully post-Covid, or perhaps more likely, a ‘living with Covid’ world.

Some responses by care home staff to the survey:

Pearl, a senior member of staff at a chain of care homes, said: “The residents love the fact that the young people are interested in the lives they lived. It makes them feel valued.”

Vicky, a care home’s activities coordinator, said: “The residents also love hearing about the young people’s own lives.”

Jackie, another activities coordinator, looked to a post-pandemic world: “I know they will love [in-person] visits one day, more than anything.”

A school’s typical response:

Richard, a senior teacher at a sixth form in Norwich, said: “YOPEY fits with our super curriculum and we particularly suggest that those with career ambitions in healthcare and social care take part, but this is not exclusive.

“The YOPEY programme is particularly good at encouraging ways of creating and nurturing friendships and developing face-to-face skills. Students gain first-hand experience of the issues facing the elderly, developing an understanding of the importance of empathy in their future work.”

YOPEY Befrienders take away loads from the scheme

Eighteen-year-old Matthew, who was one of the YOPEY Befrienders stopped from visiting by the pandemic, said: “It’s definitely worth a try, you can only gain from it in the long run. It makes for a good experience to mention in university and job applications. It can be enriching personally and last but not least, your involvement will help elderly people no matter if you show up once or three times a week.

Seventeen-year-old Riya said: “Knowing that I can help someone through these difficult times by doing what I enjoy, like singing carols and making word searches, is extremely gratifying. I will carry forward the skills I have developed.”

Sixteen-year-old Lauren said: “The best thing about YDB is the intergenerational friendships you make. You hear all the time of ‘having respect for your elders’ and you think they are boring and uninterested in you. But writing to the residents has been so much fun and you can really see the child in them as they recall stories and memories. Just remembering that they were children once and they really are interested in you has been my favourite thing to take away.”

Generation lost – or generation found?

Seventeen-year-old Cece said: “I don’t think we are a ‘lost generation’. We are hopefully coming out the other side and we can use the experience to learn, grow and realign what we really value. We can now invest more time and effort in things we missed out on, such as spending time with family and friends – things many people feel they took for granted pre-pandemic.”

Sixteen-year-old Becky said: “I agree that many young people have been drastically affected by the pandemic and many opportunities have been closed. Luckily, I have had a great support system and was privileged to still have online learning etc.”

Sixteen-year-old Lauren said: “If you are thinking that we are the ‘lost generation’ you are dwelling on the past. Okay, the last two years have not been easy but we as young people have had to step up to the challenge. There have still been plenty of opportunities like YDB and other virtual experiences. Our generation has got to get up and work against a challenging next couple of years.”