FEATURE: Beating loneliness during the dark times

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Three years ago, a band of Peterlee volunteers decided to start dialling and stop loneliness. Alison Goulding reports on East Durham Trust’s Chit Chat project.

A SIMPLE phone call really can make all the difference. That’s what the volunteers who run the Chit Chat project have found.

Every week they speak to people who are lonely and the project has been so successful that it’s now expanded to include the Chit Chat Young People project, aimed at teenagers.

Malcolm Fallow is chief executive of the East Durham Trust, which started Chit Chat.

“Loneliness has a stigma attached to it and yet a lot of people are lonely,” he says.

“It began in September time as we thought older people would be affected by the weather and the dark nights drawing in.

Chit Chat volunteers at East Durham Trust, Peterlee..'Left to right; jamie Seed, Bryn Leneghan and Kathleen Lynn.

Chit Chat volunteers at East Durham Trust, Peterlee..'Left to right; jamie Seed, Bryn Leneghan and Kathleen Lynn.

“We then opened the service over Christmas too, because that’s when people hit their lowest ebb.

“Our hope is that the service moves them, perhaps by encouraging them to visit their community centre and meet new people.

“The goal is for them to get to the point where they can say ‘Stop bothering me!’.

Malcolm believes loneliness can be a sign of the times.

“As society goes in to decline and deprivation sets in, big industries close and unemployment rises.

“People then lose the social side of work, the mess room or the canteen. Then there are some distractions like computers and TV that people withdraw into.

“Then, as funding is cut, community venues and groups struggle to stay open and suddenly people lose their weekly whist drive or whatever it is they go to.

“Everyone knows a pub or club that’s closed lately. When you remove those building blocks you get this loneliness,” he said.

Volunteers undergo two days of training when they start and top up training as they progress.

Calls are recorded and used in each volunteers professional development reviews.

Volunteers are aged from 18 to 70 plus.

Malcolm said: “There’s no ‘typical’ volunteer, which I find encouraging.

“There’s been a welcome surge of young people lately, which is very good.

“We live in a former coalfield community and community spirit is there, it just needs to be maintained.

“It never ceases to amaze me the time people will give to assist people in their own communities.

“They could be forgiven for worrying about their own interests when times are hard but they’re the opposite.”

Malcolm believes the benefits go both ways. He said: “There’s a massive recognition that there’s something in it for the volunteers.

“There’s a lot to be gained in terms of personal mental well being. Helping someone less fortunate is a great way of adding to your own well being. Research shows that people who contribute to others are happier themselves.”

Bryn Lenaghan began volunteering for Chit Chat after he was made redundant from his job as a lunchtime supervisor.

The 27-year-old, from Peterlee, said: “It’s definitely helped me. I’m not one of those people who like to sit still. I like to be busy. I’ve been volunteering with East Durham Trust since 2009 doing various things and I started with Chit Chat eight months ago.

“I’m a good talker and a good listener and I wanted to help people.”

Bryn says the idea is simple but effective.

“We talk about anything – their hobbies, what’s making them happy, what’s making them sad. It’s just being a friend really.

“I do notice a big change as time passes. Their mood lifts and if they’ve been quite closed off they seem to open up again.

“Sometimes it gets to me, we’re only human, but there are success stories. One woman I speak to has come on leaps and bounds.”

Volunteers are trained to know their limits and to signpost service users towards professional help when appropriate.

Bryn said: “It’s not a medical service but we can pass on details for other organisations who can help with specific situations or problems.

“I would definitely recommend volunteering for Chit Chat.

“Give it a chance, you never know – there’ll be low points and high spots but it’s certainly worth it. Feeling alone in the world is the worst thing but having a sympathetic ear to talk to can really help.”

Inspiration for the service came from frontrunners like Good Morning Glasgow.

Malcolm said: “We went for the phone service because not everyone is comfortable with a home visitor and not all volunteers want to visit people in their homes. Good morning Glasgow and another service down in the south encouraged us to try it.”

The service received some initial funding from the PCT but is now funded by the trust. Chit Chat has gained the respect of local doctors.

“We get a significant number of GPs referring to us,” said Malacolm.

“They know it’s much better for a person to have a conversation than just increase their medication. Getting people talking solves a lot of problems.

“Whenever we promote it to encourage more volunteers we get people ringing up to ask if we can add them to the calls list. It takes a lot for someone to do that.

“We get people in all kinds of circumstances. One lady was caring for her poorly husband and she was very lonely, even though there was someone in the house with her.

“It makes a big difference. One person said they used to cry themselves to sleep but now they know someone will call the next day and that’s a big comfort.”

Stewart Johnston, 41, volunteers for Chit Chat once a week and says it has helped him with his own anxiety disorder.

“I was looking for something to get involved with after being out of work so I got in touch and did some training in mental health first aid and it started there.,” he said.

“In total I’ve been volunteering for about a year and I get a really interesting variety of calls.

“We don’t give advice but it’s good for people to have someone to listen.

“People look forward to our calls and we look forward to calling them. It’s a two-way thing.

“Some can be quite isolated and facing a variety of different problems. They might have trouble with an ex, or be worried about retiring, or have some health problems.

“We listen and try to help by referring them to relevant services.

“I can sometimes use my own experiences of suffering from anxiety to help. There is a very good support group called No Panic that I have used myself in the past and I do recommend them.

“I don’t get too in-depth about my own experiences but it’s nice to share the odd thing.”

Stewart moved to Peterlee four years ago from Birmingham and finds the people of the North East very friendly.

“Round here there’s still a community spirit that you don’t get in a big city.

“I don’t work at the moment but I’d like to get back to work. I’m volunteering to get my confidence back again. I’m going to help with some administration work soon and “I’d like to try my hand at a few different things to see what I want to do.

“I am finding I really enjoy the care aspect of Chit Chat so maybe that’s something I could get into.

“It’s nice to make a difference and offer them an ear.

“There’s real satisfaction when you hear someone has made progress. They might not get out much but you suggest a local group and find they’ve been along and that’s great.

“There’s no time limit, we talk as long as they need us to.”

To register for the Chit Chat service or volunteer, call 569 3511. Find out more at www.eastdurhamtrust.org.uk

Support the Chit Chat project by sending one of the following text options to: 70500

CHAT 1 to donate £ 1

CHAT 2 to donate £ 2

CHAT 3 to donate £ 3

CHAT 4 to donate £ 4

CHAT 5 to donate £ 5