‘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 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 stakeholders 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 carrying out in-person visits 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.”
A few exchanges between young people and their elderly friends
AGE OF WISDOM – extracts from visit reports by YOPEY Befrienders
“I took part in a quiz with residents. The questions were quite hard – it seems the residents’ general knowledge is much better than mine, and that they were having a good time.”
“We discussed the news & the current political climate, eg whether 16 & 17 year-olds should vote? The residents thought it was a bad idea to allow us to vote because we are not yet mature enough.”
“Care home resident Margaret is from South Africa. She was teaching me how to say some words in Afrikaans. She loved teaching me & I enjoyed learning. Pretty cool!”
“Nora said I have lovely legs & should ‘flaunt them’. She came 2nd in a ‘Miss Beautiful Legs’ when she was young. Nora is amazing – she is 95, virtually blind, but has an incredibly positive personality.”
“Douglas is 96! He spoke about his wife but exclaimed that she isn’t in heaven because there is no such thing as god and that we live on a dying world so he is leaving at the right time before it can get any worse.“
“We talked to Margaret. I say talked; we couldn’t get a word in. She showed us her cookbook. It was clear that she liked to cook – the recipes were very detailed.”
“I compared roles with Eva, Mary, Pam & Evelyn. We decided I have much more freedom as a young woman today than they had when they were young. As I left everyone said goodbye & thanked me for such an interesting conversation.”
AND DEMENTIA AWARE
“I sat with a resident. She wasn’t talkative but clearly liked having someone to sit with because whenever I went to sit with another resident, she would always call me back.”
“Cath told me about a memory. There was a table with a carpet on top of it. Cath had tea but assured me that the tea tasted fine despite the carpet. I went along with this as Cath clearly believed it.”
“A resident asked me about her old boyfriend & what I knew about his past. I just carried on with the conversation & tried to avoid saying anything that could upset her.”
“I went for a walk around the care home with Mira, who told me she was trying to find her way home. We did several laps before Mira forgot what she was doing & sat down in the lounge.”
In normal times this charity runs befriending schemes between schools and care homes, mainly in the East of England. We have contributed to homes being upgraded by the CQC. We aim to return to face-to-face befriending in the autumn of 2022.
Meanwhile, we are inviting schools to take part in the four ‘virtual’ initiatives we started during the pandemic to support care home residents. Again, we are mainly interested in sixth forms in the East of England taking part, but we will consider applications from schools in other areas and different age groups.
The four initiatives are:
- Young people write open letters to care home residents via YOPEY. We will share these letters with many care homes to try to find each young person a penpal. However, even if you do not get a penpal, we know all our letters are read by, or to, residents and are showing the elderly that young people are thinking about them during a time when they have been more isolated than ever. For more information about this initiative visit our Facebook page @IwanttohelpCareHomeResidents.
- Young people compile activities for care home residents to do, such as crosswords, word searches and riddles. We like the activities to be illustrated with images, especially ones created by the young person or royalty-free or uncopyrighted photographs.
- Young people make short videos to entertain the elderly. YOPEY puts the videos into YOPEY Virtual Variety Shows. As well as traditional variety acts such as musicians, singers and dancers, young people are also making videos of interesting places, their holidays and pets. YOPEY will consider any video that is under 5 minutes, not offensive and could spark reminisces by the elderly. For more information visit our Facebook page @YoungEntertainElderly and watch finished shows on YouTube by searching YOPEY Virtual Variety Shows.
- Young people make art to decorate care homes.
Sometimes these initiatives cross over. For example, a young man made a video of himself leading exercises that residents could do while seated. A young woman videoed herself in time-lapse drawing a picture for residents to colour in.
Join our scheme, schools & colleges
If your school or sixth-form college is interested in taking part email email@example.com with your name, job title, school and telephone number. Ideally a direct line or mobile.
If your group of students is accepted onto the scheme, they can register on app.yopeybefriender.org to compile a record of their volunteering to add to their CV. Your school or sixth-form college can request a record of all your students’ volunteering to show Ofsted.
Join our scheme, students
To take part in any of these initiatives email firstname.lastname@example.org with the initiative/s you are interested in and your name and age and a contact telephone number – this should be for a responsible adult if you are aged under 18. We will send you more information and an application form to take part.
For each initiative completed successfully, we will award you a certificate.
There is no need to register on yopeybefriender.org unless you go to a school that is taking part in one of the initiatives.
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, Mary would always smile and wave at him.
This all sounds very ordinary until you learn the man had dementia and Mary was an unrelated teenager. She was not his grand-daughter but a ‘YOPEY Befriender’ – a young person recruited and supported by the West Suffolk charity YOPEY to befriend lonely care home residents with dementia.
Mary was a trailblazer, one of the first group of about a dozen YOPEY Befrienders from schools in Bury St Edmunds who visited a specialist dementia care home in the town back in 2016.
Since then Young People of the Year Dementia Befriender – to give the project its full name – has expanded to about 20 schools and care homes across the East of England, including ones in Haverhill, Newmarket and Sudbury.
I founded YOPEY as an antidote to the bad press the media inflicts on young people. But this article is not about me, it is about former YOPEY Befrienders, what they gave and what they gained from taking part in the project, and where they are now.
Mary Whittingdale was only 14 when, at St Benedict’s, West Suffolk’s Catholic school, she listened to me in an assembly.
“I remember being deeply moved by what Tony had to say, specifically the epidemic of loneliness facing elderly people in our communities. I remember being struck by one statistic: half-a-million elderly people in the UK only have a television for company. With an ageing population, 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 “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.”
A fellow trailblazer 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.”
Like Mary, Isobel feels being a befriender has made her a better person. “It has helped me to be more confident in holding a conversation with a variety of people.”
And if dementia happened in her family: “I feel much better equipped. I have become much more educated about dementia as a whole.”
Kyra Nel joined the YOPEY project 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.”
Leonard has since died. 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.
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 in their first year at universities – 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.
While most YOPEY Befrienders are girls, about one in five are boys.
Ewan Ley was inspired “by being able to put a smile on the faces of residents, many of whom don’t get any visitors” to train in health and social care after school. He now works full-time in one care home in Bury St Edmunds and does agency shifts at another. He has also become a Dementia Champion with the Alzheimer’s Society, all stemming from his time as YOPEY Befriender.
Perhaps the last word should go the person who started this article. Mary sums up: “Befriending taught me lessons I could not have learnt in any other way and for that I will be forever grateful.”