|The Emma Edit | Kamwell’s Emma James explores a new wellbeing topic every month|
My road to volunteering
In my final year as a psychology student at Sussex University I moved into a little flat in the centre of Brighton with two friends. We hadn’t lived there long when I bumped into our only neighbour in the hallway, an elderly lady called Edith with a dog whose name I’ve relegated to the inaccessible parts of my memory. We got talking and I immediately warmed to her. She was slow and quiet but had a glint in her eye that spoke of a prior life filled with adventure. In the weeks that followed we had many more hallway chats and it wasn’t long before we established a weekly tea date at her flat. I soon discovered that, bar a son who lived ‘up North’ and her canine companion, Edith was completely alone and had regularly gone for weeks without meaningful human interaction.
Edith’s charming nature, stories about a bygone era and penchant for chocolate covered biscuits led me to spend many hours curled up in one of her armchairs. We became friends. And when I moved to London the following year, we kept in touch. I’d call her every now and again and send the odd letter. But the inevitable day came when I received a call from her son, informing me that Edith had died. This news weighed heavy on my heart. Her son went on to tell me that Edith had kept a daily journal (unbeknown to me) and that my visits featured in many entries. He said that she wrote about me as someone who had kept loneliness and sadness at bay and given a little silver lining to her existence. He read me a few excerpts from her diary that moved me to tears, words that I will never forget.
After Edith’s death, I felt a growing sense of unease about the situation she (and so many others) faced as she grew old. It seemed so utterly wrong. Loneliness is a heavy burden for anyone to carry, let alone someone nearing the end of their life, when energy and resources to undo one’s situation are limited. For most of us, going weeks without meaningful human interaction is unimaginable. Yet, amongst the elderly, loneliness is an epidemic which is having a catastrophic effect on wellbeing in later life.
My discontent soon reached a tipping point and I decided to turn my frustration into action. Not knowing where to start, I Googled ‘combat loneliness in the elderly’ and was heartened by the results. Amongst many initiatives, Age UK’s befriending scheme, where volunteers are paired with an elderly person to visit regularly over a set period of time, immediately caught my eye. Within a couple of weeks I was sitting at my local Age UK office, signing up to be a befriender. I have been volunteering in this capacity for three years and find it to be a source of great joy in my life.
Why doing good does you good?
Countless studies have identified a link between doing good and feeling good. Volunteering has been found to promote better mental and physical health and increase a sense of purpose and feelings of happiness. An extensive research project on the topic found that altruistic attitudes, volunteering, and informal helping behaviours make unique contributions to the maintenance of life satisfaction. The Mental Health Foundation made ‘doing good’ the focus of a recent mental health awareness campaign and published research that linked helping others to a reduction in stress, improved emotional wellbeing and a reduction in negative feelings. 94% of respondents in a United Health Group study reported that volunteering had improved their mood and helped take their mind off their own problems.
Doing good, as part of a wellbeing strategy
With the impressive effect it has on wellbeing, it is no surprise that volunteering is increasingly making its way onto employee wellbeing agendas. ‘Better Relationships’ is a scheme run by Barclays that encourages their employees to volunteer their time and skills though regular giving opportunities and matched fundraising, as well as an annual Make A Difference Day. Waitrose donate 75,000 paid hours a year for staff to give their time and skills to local communities. Employees at Salesforce are given 7 paid volunteering days per financial year, donated to a cause of their choosing.
Employers that encourage their people to volunteer and, most importantly, put the infrastructure in place to make this possible, have seen impressive results in terms of employee satisfaction, loyalty and pride in their employer, reinforcing the business case for including volunteering in a wellbeing strategy.
Londoners can find their local volunteering centre here
If befriending sounds like something you’d like to look into, I would recommend checking out Age UK.