“Befriending just touches my heart - I find it so rewarding. I’ve made such a special friend,” said Davina Bradley.
Every week she visits 93-year-old Shirley Heathcote who lives around the corner from her.
They were brought together by Elderfriends, which was launched by The Volunteer Centre in Chesterfield 17 years ago.
Davina, of Springvale Road, Brimington, is one of 70 befrienders in the group who give up their time to visit those who are lonely or socially isolated.
She said: “I find it so rewarding. I’ve always worked with people and I like to listen.”
After early retirement from her job with the Learning Disability Service at Ash Green due to hip problems, Davina decided to take up voluntary work.
“I love older people,” she said. “Over a year ago, I walked into the centre and volunteered my services. I went through all the procedures, checks, training sessions and was introduced to Shirley.
“We got on really well - we have a similar sense of humour and similiar interests. Shirley is a mine of information about Brimington.”
Davina, who is married and has a grown-up son, visits her friend once a week to chat, offer a listening ear or help with any tasks which are troubling her.
She said: “Shirley has had concerns that she’s wanted to talk about because she’s pretty isolated. I’ve always been there to listen.
“She’s been whittling that she can’t see addresses or telephone numbers so I’ve been putting them onto my computer to print out in a larger version.
“We go out a lot - to cafes for lunch or to garden centres. I act as her eyes and describe things.”
Shirley has glaucoma, osteoarthritis and deep vein thrombosis in both legs. She said: “I can’t imagine life without Davina – she is one of my best friends.
“When we go out, she’ll say things like ‘there’s a step there, be careful’. She’s like a lovely guide dog – I’d be lost without her.”
Shirley has been a widow for 38 years, having met her husband at Staveley Coal and Iron Company where he worked as a wages clerk and she was a comptometer operator. Their son is now 73, is a warden in the Peak District and lives in Stafford.
The friends shared their stories during National Befrienders Week.
Magnus Shaw, Elderfriends project worker, said: “Befriending is much more than a cup of coffee with someone who is elderly.
“There’s increasing recognition that voluntary befrienders are the eyes and ears of GPs because befrienders see clients on a regular basis.”
Funded by Derbyshire County Council and the Clinical Commissioning Group, the Elderfriends project was under threat earlier this year when county councillors were looking to make budget cuts. Campaigners drew up an online petition and urged people to protest to their MP and councillors. Their efforts paid off with funding for Elderfriends continuing until March 2016. “We felt vindicated,” said Magnus. “We fought very hard to save the project which is of massive social benefit. I think we’ve convinced them that scrapping this service will immediately trigger an enormous increased cost because people will turn to GPs and A&E.”
With that hurdle behind them, Magnus and co project worker Janet Millington are appealing for more volunteer befrienders.
Magnus said: “There is far more need than there is ability to meet it....the referrals outnumber volunteers by two or three to one.” Referrals come from GPs or people can refer themselves, but potential clients referred by a third party must be notified beforehand.
People who want to volunteer as a befriender will have an interview, have their background checked through the Disclosure and Barring Service and have a three-hour induction training session.
Befrienders choose their clients from a shortlist and their selection is usually based on mutual interests or similar struggles, such as bereavement or health issues.
Janet said: “We talk about empathy rather than sympathy. We expect both to have enhanced lives because of the friendship - they are both helping each other.
Befriending those in need will benefit young people as much as older adults. Magnus said: “The experience of spending a lot of time with another person will enrich their lives, volunteering will enrich their CV and the experience will carry on throughout their lives.”
To find out more about befriending, contact Magnus or Janet on 01246 276777 or www.elderfriends.org.uk