New pals for lonely Doncaster pensioner who 'had not had visitors since lockdown' as charity adapts to current state of affairs

It is an issue that has affected thousands across Doncaster.

Wednesday, 25th November 2020, 12:30 pm

With the coronavirus having already put residents through two lockdowns and other restrictions, loneliness has impacted on people of all sorts of backgrounds.

This issue was brought into focus this week when an 87-year-old from Doncaster told a television phone-in she had not had any visitors since leaving hospital in March.

This week Doncaster Council said it had reached out to 30,000 vulnerable people since March – and carers have already made contact with Margaret from Bessacarr, who had contacted the phone-in.

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Margaret hadn't had any visitors since March

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This week, the Free Press contacted Margaret about her situation. She asked us to refer to her in our reports only as Margaret from Bessacarr.

Margaret was in hospital before lockdown after a fall, and spent time in a home while she got back on her feet.

But she said she longed to see people. She has no relatives in Doncaster.

Befriender Julie Brice and Hazel Cole. Both of Doncaster. They met through B:Friend

Margaret said she lived through World War Two, but has never seen anything like the current coronavirus pandemic. The war still allowed people to mix.

The Free Press has put her in touch with B:Friend, a charity based in the town which provides companionship for people who are on their own. They rang her after we contacted them, and a befriender is in place for her.

We have received many offers of support for Margaret, who does not want her contact details shared.

One carers organisation has already been in touch with her.

Befriender Julie Brice and Hazel Cole. Both of Doncaster. They met through B:Friend

Making Space UK, a care business which works with the council, said in a statement on social media: “Today we have been out to visit Margaret, who called This Morning to talk about loneliness. We have dropped Margaret a food hamper and lots of goodies. We hope you enjoy them Margaret and we are here anytime you need us."

A council spokesman said they were pleased to hear that Margaret had received a special surprise from their partners.

They added: “Supporting those in need has always been our priority and there's plenty of help available for people who are struggling alone.

“We know that throughout this pandemic families, friends, neighbours and volunteers have played a crucial role in supporting people with the council and other services working together.

B:friend befriender Kirsty makes a socially distanced visit to friend Mary

“We've reached out to over 30,000 vulnerable residents since March but there's always a challenge of not being able to know of everyone who might need support.

“If you know someone who could use some support, then PLEASE contact us on our dedicated number:01302 430300.

“You can also ring the Social Isolation Alliance on 01302 430322.”

Doncaster charity B:Friend was set up by its founder Mike Niles, after he experienced loneliness himself while working in London. He was helped by an organisation which pairs young professionals with their older neighbours.

He decided to set something similar up after returning to his native Doncaster in 2016, and the organisation has grown in since then, also running social events for lonely people.

But officials at the charity admit they faced challenges to find a way to continue their work after lockdown arrived.

Befriending officer at the charity, Jenny Pitman, said the pandemic instantly put a stop to many of the activities which they had been running around the borough.

Before the pandemic, they were running social groups at community buildings in Wheatley Hills, Rossington, Balby, Mexborough and Thorne. They had projects to arrange for elderly residents to meet children, working with local organisations.

They were helping some 200 people.

With the situation changed almost overnight, the team looked again at what they could provide.

While previously they had their teams of police-checked volunteers going out to visit residents in their homes, that stopped.

Contact had to switch over initially to telephone calls.

That was eventually able to change again, when the initial lockdown ended, with befriending volunteers instead visiting their friends, but meeting them outside in their gardens.

Social groups have also now been revamped. Instead of running sessions in a community centre, they are now run on shared telephone conference calls. Not only that, but the activity that would have been done together for the session is delivered to the person’s home, so they can still do that activity, and talk together about what they have been doing.

There has been another aspect to lockdown – it has brought a surge in new volunteers asking to buddy up with one group members.

Jenny said: “We have had a really overwhelming response to volunteering. We have been inundated with people who can’t bear to think of someone who is all alone.

"We were unsure how we would be able to keep social groups going, but with phone parties, we are getting 16 or 17 people on the phone lines. It’s the best kind of chaos imaginable. People are good at not talking over people.

"We didn’t know how we’d be able to replicate what we’ve done before. But we’ve got people who were paired in March who are still going strong.

"We have had volunteers coming to us from all over the country. We’ve actually got someone in Orkney who has befriended someone in Doncaster.

"We were worried if we would be able to continue with what we do – but we have been lucky with our amazing volunteers we’ve been able to carry on.”

Befriender Julie Brice met Hazel Cole through B:Friend. Both live in Doncaster.

They have been paired for three years now and before the pandemic had a regular weekly visit, which they have continued on the phone. They celebrated Hazel’s 90th birthday together before lockdown.

Julie said: “I have been a volunteer for three years – I have loved every minute. Knowing when I leave Hazel's I have made a difference and put a smile on her face is the best feeling ever! Our friendship is really special.”

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.