Every Sunday afternoon the old man would wait at the window for that first glimpse of his friend coming to visit him. Before she entered the care home, the teenager would always smile and wave at him.
This all sounds very ordinary until you learn the old man had dementia and the teenager was not his relation. Mary Whittingdale was not his grand-daughter but a ‘YOPEY Befriender’ – a young person recruited and supported by the Newmarket charity YOPEY to visit lonely people living in care homes. Many of the elderly residents have dementia.
Mary was one of a group of about a dozen YOPEY Befrienders from schools in Bury St Edmunds who visited a specialist dementia care home in the town before coronavirus. Partly thanks to YOPEY Befriender, that care home was upgraded from Good to Outstanding by the Care Quality Commission and has since been sold for over £7 million.
During the pandemic, YOPEY Befrienders could not visit care homes so instead they wrote letters, compiled activities, such as word searches, and made videos for the locked-down residents to enjoy. Two thousand care homes across the UK received these welcome materials from hundreds of young people via YOPEY, which compiled them into inviting and easy-to-use packs.
Now that care homes have opened up again, YOPEY is looking for a few select homes in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk to receive visits from YOPEY Befrienders again. They are being asked to contribute £2,000 to YOPEY’s £6,000 costs of setting up and running a YOPEY Befriender scheme for the first year. So far four have signed up.
The Suffolk charity is continuing to send letters, activities and videos to other care homes and is asking for £100 a year from homes towards its costs of providing this lifeline with the outside world. Recent research found that care home residents are THE loneliest people.
YOPEY works mainly with sixth forms and secondary schools, although a couple of primary schools have taken part. “Most of our volunteers come from the less exam-pressured years 12 and 10 (14 to 17-year-olds), although we welcome letters, organised by teachers, from any class,” said YOPEY founder Tony Gearing MBE. “We want to make the East of England ‘the Beacon for Befriending’ in the UK.”
Mary was at secondary school when her year received a visit from YOPEY.
“I remember being deeply moved by what they had to say, specifically the epidemic of loneliness facing elderly people in our communities. With an ageing population in the UK, I was worried about this trend. However, unlike many problems, this one seemed to have a simple solution. To bridge this gap all that is required is giving one’s time to visit residents, foster real friendships with them, and have a great time whilst doing so.”
After training by YOPEY “Sunday afternoons became a crucial part of my routine,” remembers Mary. “These visits weren’t only helping the residents. Giving to others made me feel good about myself. It also put the stresses of school into perspective. I learnt there is much more to life than just a test score.
“I used to look forward to seeing one gentleman in particular in whom I found a true friend. Each week he would wait by the window for me and I would wave to him and smile before coming over. He was a fairly quiet man and sometimes we would just sit together and listen to music or look at a book.
“Just being with another person was what really mattered; it didn’t matter what we talked about, it was just good to sit together and enjoy each other’s company.”
Another YOPEY Befriender was Isobel Masetti. “I befriended Pam. I really enjoyed her opening up to me about her life. She’d always have a big smile on her face telling me about the boys she liked when she was younger.
“A group of us got together to host a party at the care home and do some arts and crafts with them. It was lovely to see them all enjoy the music and being creative.”
If dementia happens in Isobel’s family: “I feel much better equipped. I have become much more educated about dementia as a whole.”
Kyra Nel joined another YOPEY Befriender scheme in Sudbury. “I had to be incredibly understanding whilst volunteering at the care home because the residents with dementia sometimes had days where they weren’t willing to talk or they would get irritable.”
Kyra befriended Leonard. “We spent time chatting about the farm he used to live on, his family and his dogs. He would ask about my dog and family and about what I had been doing that week.”
During their time as a YOPEY Befriender – the aim is they visit for an hour a week for a year – is often the first time young people experience grief. They can be invited by the family of the deceased to the funeral.
Kyra’s friend Leonard died. While death made Kyra sad she believes it helped her resilience and she still “thoroughly enjoyed being a YOPEY Befriender. The skills I developed will continue to help me in various aspects of life. I will always treasure the time I spent with the residents and the friendships we had.”
All three young women are now at universities, with their YOPEY Befriender experience having enhanced their applications. Mary is studying theology at Oxford, Isobel sports sciences at Southampton, and Kyra sociology at Anglia Ruskin. It is unclear whether their future careers will be related to their past volunteering, but all agree being a YOPEY Befriender made them better people.
Isobel says. “It has helped me to be more confident in holding a conversation with a variety of people.” Mary sums up: “Befriending taught me lessons I could not have learnt in any other way and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Some YOPEY Befrienders go on to careers in care. Ewan Ley was inspired by being a YOPEY Befriender to qualify in health and social care and now works full time in a care home. He loves “being able to put a smile on the faces of residents, many of whom don’t get any visitors”.
YOPEY founder Tony Gearing MBE said: “Everyone benefits from taking part in YOPEY Befriender – the elderly are less lonely, the young learn life skills, and care homes and schools can be upgraded by their inspection bodies.
“Due to a shortage of funds after the pandemic, we are asking care homes and individuals to contribute to the costs of our life-affirming services. We do not charge schools but we ask their students to fundraise.”