Volunteering with the Elderly | Revealing, Recognising and Rewarding Positive Role Models

‘Everyone overwhelmed with emotion’

‘Everyone overwhelmed with emotion’

More than 20 young people from a sixth-form college have begun befriending elderly residents at a care home in Norfolk following training to be the first ‘YOPEY Befrienders’ since the pandemic.

The 22 16 to 19-year-olds, all girls, from East Norfolk Sixth Form College met residents at St Augustine’s Place housing with care in Addison Road for the first of what is planned to be many visits over the coming months.

The manager of St Augustine’s, Danielle Bullent, said: “Everyone was overwhelmed with emotion, seeing the YOPEY Befrienders interact with our tenants. The smiles and joy they created was a pleasure to witness. We cannot wait to have the students visiting regularly to develop their intergenerational friendships with our tenants.”

The sixth-formers’ teacher, Ellie Symonds, said: “For a lot of the students, this was their first experience in a care home, and with speaking with people who have dementia.

“Lots of stories and fun moments were shared between the students and the residents. Photos were shown of pets and stories were told of hobbies.”

Lucy Vincent, an employer engagement coordinator at the Gorleston college, said: “The opportunity for students to volunteer at St Augustine’s will be very valuable to their subjects and future applications to university and apprenticeships.

“Students will now be able to visit the residents in their free lessons and take part in St Augustine’s weekly group activities to build up a record of volunteering

The young people were trained to be ‘YOPEY Befrienders’ by Tony Gearing MBE, the founder of the Suffolk charity YOPEY, which is based near Newmarket and runs befriending schemes between sixth forms and care homes throughout East Anglia.

The scheme between East Norfolk Sixth Form College and St Augustine’s is the first visiting YOPEY Befriender scheme that YOPEY has started since before the pandemic.

Tony said: “I believe our Befrienders are unique and give more benefit to elderly people living in care homes because they are young. Most other befriending schemes use the middle-aged to visit the old-aged. While you would think the two older generations would have more in common, the elderly love to hear about the young’s lives and give advice to people embarking on their adult lives.”

Tony added: “There is also the issue of dementia. A lot of residents in care homes have Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases. We train YOPEY Befrienders not to be judgemental and to ‘live in the moment’. We have evidence from care professionals that our young volunteers relax residents and reduce their anxiety.

“YOPEY Befriender schemes have contributed to care homes being upgraded by the Care Quality Commission.”

For young people, who cannot take part in a visiting YOPEY Befriender scheme, YOPEY offers the opportunity to ‘virtually’ support the lonely elderly by writing letters, making activities and shooting videos that are shared by the charity with hundreds of care homes UK-wide.

The passing of ‘Our Queen’ by YOPEY’s Patron

The passing of ‘Our Queen’ by YOPEY’s Patron

It is with a very heavy heart that we learn of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – the world’s greatest queen.

As well as being the longest reigning British Monarch, Her Majesty was also the longest reigning female monarch in world history.

In 1947 at the age of just 21 the young Princess Elizabeth promised to dedicate her life – “be it long or short” – to the service of Her people. She lived up to that promise every day of her long life over the last 75 plus years. A life of service, devotion and duty as head of a state, the nation and the Commonwealth of over 2.5 billion people was witnessed across the globe during her many visits both around the UK and overseas and it is fair to say that she was loved and revered by all. She was a symbol of stability through decades in which the world has seen a great many changes.

Hertfordshire was well known to Her Majesty as her Mother’s family live in the north of the county and indeed my predecessor as Lord-Lieutenant is Sir Simon Bowes-Lyon, her first cousin. She had many fond memories of her time spent in Hertfordshire.

The Queen was a regular visitor to the county from the very beginning of her reign, her last visit being in 2016 to Berkhamsted School – of which she was Patron – where thousands of local people turned out to welcome their Queen.

I had the honour and privilege to meet The Queen on several occasions and on each she made me laugh with her wicked sense of humour at the same time as her sharp mind focused on the most poignant issues of the day.

Approximately 85% of the British population have only ever known one monarch in their lives and what a privilege it has been for all of us, young and old, to be able to have called this great lady “Our Queen”.

It has been the greatest honour of my life to have been appointed Her Majesty’s personal representative and to have served a truly great monarch.

On behalf of YOPEY, which is one of many organisations of which I have the honour to be Patron, I send sincerest condolences to King Charles III and all the Royal Family.

May “Our Queen” rest in eternal peace.

Robert Voss CBE CStJ
His Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire
And also Patron of the YOPEY charity

Tribute to past YOPEY winner who has died aged 30

Tribute to past YOPEY winner who has died aged 30

I received this email from the mother of a past Young Person of the Year last week: Hi Tony – Just a little message to tell you my beautiful daughter Stacey lost her fight this morning and gained her angel wings at 5:37 – Regards Sharon

When I started Young People of the Year in 2005, I wanted nominations for young people who were doing good in their communities that I could encourage the media to celebrate as positive role models for other young people to copy.

I suspected I would also receive nominations for young people who were ill or disabled. What my former colleagues in the media call ‘role models in adversity’.

Stacey Johnson was one such nominee. Stacey was born with a skin condition that can lead to cancer. She had been in and out of hospital her whole life. Her school wanted her family to have some good news and so the head teacher nominated the then 13-year-old Stacey for Young People of the Year.

Who was I to reject this bid for something nice to come out of tragedy and our judges agreed. They gave Stacey a spot on the winners podium, although not the top spot. That went to a pair of teenage sisters, who despite their youth had flown alone to Sri Lanka to help in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami.

I remember, as we were taking down the set, looking up and seeing Stacey’s family standing in a tight huddle. I felt Stacey was taking in what she had been part of. Later I realised she had been inspired by the other finalists. Over the years many YOPEYs – as Young People of the Year came to be known for short – were won by young people who fundraised for good causes.

Later Stacey told me: “The YOPEY awards ceremony was the first time I spoke in public. Afterwards I felt I could do anything because not only my family believed in me, so did others. It gave me confidence.”

In 2008 Stacey entered YOPEY again. This time the focus was not on her illness – even though she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour by then – but on the fundraising she had started since the first YOPEY she had entered. Stacey, with the help of her sister Danni and a friend, collected soft toys and then ran ‘teddy bear tombolas’ at events. The aim was to raise enough money to equip a chill-out room for teenage patients at a London hospital where Stacey was treated.

While definitely worthwhile, the judges decided this was more of an aspiration than a success. The girls had raised some money but not yet enough to make the chill-out room a reality. So, although Stacey had made the final, this time she did not even get on to the winners’ podium.

Stacey was not to be beaten. Showing her determination, she entered for a third time in 2010. By this time it was a different story. She had succeeded in raising all of the money to equip two chill-out rooms for teenage patients at the London hospital and closer to her Much Hadham home at an Essex hospital. Her amazing efforts were also paying for a feel-good garden at a Hertfordshire hospital.

Stacey’s fundraising was so successful it became an official charity called Kisses4Kids. Over the years Kisses4Kids was to raise tens of thousands of pounds to support sick children and teenagers.

All of this was achieved while Stacey was undergoing treatment for the brain tumour, which six weeks of radiotherapy and 12 months of chemotherapy had failed to remove.

I will never forget how proud I felt – and I am sure her parents, mum Sharon and dad Brian, felt even more so – when Stacey walked down the central aisle of the 2010 Hertfordshire YOPEYs, in a beautiful ball gown, to receive the Young Person of the Year award. 

The frequent treatment for the tumour was leaving Stacey feeling sick and weak for weeks afterwards. “Whatever side-effects were listed,” said Sharon, “she got them all from being constantly sick to infection after infection.”

So Stacey made a personal sacrifice: “I want to be as well as I can so I can make children happy, even if they are having a really bad time.

“I discussed ending my treatment with my consultant. I could die next week, next year or in 60 years – we really don’t know.”

So she stopped her treatment to be as well as she could be to run Kisses4Kids and support more sick children and teenagers.

Although Stacey ran Kisses4Kids for 10 years, she never entered YOPEY again. She didn’t have to. She had gone from ‘role model in adversity’ to an out-and-out role model for giving to others, despite her illness.

Eventually her health got too bad to run Kisses4Kids and she ended up in a wheelchair. The charity was wound up and its assets given to a similar charity. This included a caravan where families with sick children can still take much-needed holidays.

My last contact with Stacey was over the booklet I wrote to inspire young people whose mental health suffered during the pandemic. Despite being gravely ill, Stacey contributed to Your Kids Are Not Covid’s Lost Generation. Her message: laugh in the face of adversity, including covid.

She wrote: “I have had many setbacks (in my life) being on and off chemo. The worst was when I ended up in a wheelchair.”

To young people worried about coronavirus, she said: “I would say you will face challenges as you go through life. Be prepared for them as they can strike at any time. My family has always got though hard times with humour.”

I suspected Stacey’s illness was always going to shorten her life so when I heard from her mother that she had died, aged 30. I was not surprised but it did bring back all these happy memories of a young woman determined to do good for others, despite her own troubles.

You have left your mark, Stacey Johnson.

• Anyone can download a copy of Your Kids Are Not Covid’s Lost Generation by making a donation to YOPEY at


• Young people can give to others by joining YOPEY and befriending elderly people in care homes at


From YOPEY Befriender to care home worker

From YOPEY Befriender to care home worker

By Kasey Challenger, age 20

When I started sixth form, I was struggling with insecurity about what I wanted to do when I left. I had a rough idea that I wanted to study psychology at university but I was unsure where this would put me in a few years’ time. When I started my journey with YOPEY, I couldn’t see myself in a career working with the elderly because of my misconceptions and prejudices that made me wary about care homes. But I decided to put my prejudices to one side and volunteer in a care home near my college as a YOPEY Befriender.

After training by YOPEY founder Tony Gearing, mainly about how to relate to people living with dementia, I spent the first few visits feeling nervous and worried. However, I soon found the residents to be as kind and fun-loving as anyone else. I started to gear my interest in music therapy towards the elderly. After a visit from a chair-exercise practitioner who used music as a way to get the residents moving and smiling, the air in the room seemed lighter. It honestly felt like magic.

The photo above is from one of these ‘magic’ sessions. I am the YOPEY Befriender in the background with the short blonde hair and waving a bright red pompom.

After completely my A-levels, I went to university to study psychology, but felt the human connection that I had so enjoyed at the care home was missing. As a result, I decided to take a year out and get a job instead. I found a position covering maternity leave for a well-being and activities coordinator in another care home for the elderly. The experience I had had with YOPEY meant that connecting with and getting to know the residents initially was a lot more chilled. I could draw on my first experience and be mindful of what goes down well and what to avoid.

In this role, I was able to bring music into the care home and provide the same magic for more and more people. As well as providing countless art and craft projects, movie days, bingo, exercise and yoga, group games and quizzes, and — perhaps my favourite and most rewarding part of the job — one-to-one chats and life story work. Both myself and the residents would look forward to our chats as, occasionally, I would be the only genuine human interaction they would have on that day.

The residents of my care home enjoyed the quizzes and word games sent in by talented YOPEY Befrienders, who were volunteering virtually during the pandemic. One resident found a lasting friend in her YOPEY penpal and looks forward to continuing that friendship by sending and receiving letters regularly.

I recently finished my maternity cover job at the care home and I plan to resume my psychology degree. This time I am more mature and have lasting memories and a passion for elderly care. I hope that when I’ve finished my course, I will come back to care and continue to improve myself and the lives of the elderly, which really are transformed by the small, kind things that young people do.

Befriending benefits young & old, schools & care homes

Befriending benefits young & old, schools & care homes

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.”

For more information visit yopey.org, email hello@yopey.org or call 01440 821654.

Activities to Stimulate Body, Mind and Soul for Care Home Residents

Activities to Stimulate Body, Mind and Soul for Care Home Residents

The UK’s care homes are filled with a wide variety of elderly people, many of whom want to continue living an active and vital life. One way to do this is to continue with old friendships or encourage new ones. The charity YOPEY offers care homes the opportunity to create new intergenerational friendships by having its young YOPEY Befrienders visit residents. But before we discuss YOPEY Befriender let’s look at some of the other ways care homes can help their residents to live an active and vital life…

There are so many ways that care home residents can achieve this, from exercise and physical activity to social activities, games, events and more.

From improving circulation, muscle tone and mobility to protecting mental health and stimulating social interaction for emotional wellness, keeping residents active and engaged is a vital part of care homes’ responsibilities.

Just some of the activities that care homes can set up and manage include:

Physical wellness

One of the easiest and most effective exercises residents can do is walking. It’s low impact, can be adjusted to suit the pace of the slowest people so that the group stays together which helps stimulate conversation, and helps improve overall fitness including the cardiovascular system, muscle tone, posture and general strength. Make walks fun by setting destinations, for example to a particular garden, historical site or similar. And make a note of interesting things to find and discuss on the route – it’s as much about the journey as the destination!

If there is a pool nearby, arrange for swimming sessions where residents can have exclusive use of the pool or sections of the pool. Swimming is arguably the best low impact exercise of all, and helps strengthen the core, improves circulation and reduces the risk of osteoarthritis amongst other ailments. Swimming doesn’t always have to be exercise-based – a person having a leisurely swim at their own pace is extremely relaxing and gives them a good chance to chat to their friends at the same time!

Whilst not everyone will be able to wield a spade or shovel, or lift a bag of compost, everyone is able to plant a seedling or bulb, whether in the ground or in a raised tray of sorts. Gardening is extremely cathartic and peaceful, and the joy of watching something grow is exciting and stimulating, especially if the gardeners are able to pick fruit or vegetables and eat them at a later date. Gardening can be a very social activity or something that people can do on their own if they prefer. Gardens are ideal spaces for protecting both physical and mental health.

Stretching and flexibility exercises
A great way to build an overall group or individual health is to introduce fun and stimulating stretch and flexibility classes, for example, Tai Chi or Yoga. Whilst not everyone will be able to adopt the perfect ‘Cat pose’, most will be able to bend or flex to some degree – this really is a case of ‘anything is better than nothing’.

More importantly, these classes are social activities and there will be much fun and laughing, all of which is ideal for mental wellness.

In good weather, classes can be held in the garden!

Mental wellness
There are many activities that help stimulate the cognitive senses whilst simultaneously bringing people together in social groups, which is good for emotional health and wellbeing.

They include:

  • Reading – whether, in a Book Club or individually, reading is an exceptionally powerful tool for maintaining mental acuity. Additionally, if in a Book Club, the social engagement of discussing books, plots, characters and so forth is very stimulating.
  • Arts and Crafts – there is a plethora of arts and crafts activities that can be set up and managed for groups of all sizes. Whether it’s painting and drawing or photography, knitting, sewing or scrap-booking, these activities stimulate creativity and bring people together with a common purpose.
  • Boardgames – there are so many excellent games to choose from that test general knowledge, are simply fun to play in groups or can challenge people to solve puzzles and so forth. Game Nights are incredibly popular amongst people of all ages and are a great way of bringing people together.
  • Films – whether it’s the latest blockbuster or a nostalgic Golden Oldie, Film Nights bring people together and stimulate discussion and debate, laughter if it’s a comedy and so forth, all of which promote mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • Cooking and baking – one of the most stimulating and creative places is the kitchen, and with shows like Masterchef, Great British Bake Off and similar, there’s a real interest in trying out different recipes and dishes. Getting residents involved can have huge mental and emotional benefits, as well as yield a veritable smorgasbord of foods for everyone to enjoy.
  • Dancing – music and dancing are a great way not only to get exercise but to connect with fellow residents, remember the old Dance Hall days, revive a love of music and share an evening’s entertainment.

Even for residents struggling with dementia, many of the above activities can help stimulate the mind and relieve frustrations.

For care homes, selecting from the above activities or adding, even more, is an ideal way to create a sense of community, companionship and creativity. Friendship is a great thing to encourage among residents both within the home between residents and residents, and residents and staff, but also external friendships with people in the local community. The charity YOPEY facilitates intergenerational friendships by recruiting, training and supporting young people – known as YOPEY Befrienders – to visit residents on a regular basis, and make genuine friendships, rather than visit occasionally to entertain residents at arm’s length – which is the normal nature of ‘relationships’ between schools and care homes.

Find out more about YOPEY Befriender’s contribution to helping your care home to enable its residents to live the best quality of life possible.

PS YOPEY will provide your home with an independent record of the visits to your residents by our young YOPEY Befrienders. Each YOPEY Befriender scheme lasts up to a year and care homes can ask YOPEY to keep the scheme going beyond this length of time. If a home is inspected by the CQC while it is having a YOPEY Befriender scheme, the home can ask the charity to provide it with a compilation of all its YOPEY Befrienders’ visit reports. YOPEY knows about a quarter of the homes it works with have shown these reports to the CQC and the reports have contributed to the homes being upgraded, most to Outstanding.

Contact us on 01440 821654 or email us at hello@yopey.org for more.