‘Telebefriending’ to tackle Christmas loneliness for the isolating elderly

Virtual communication will help elderly people through winter. Pic: Unsplash/George Arthur Plfueger

An independent charity will “telebefriend” hundreds of elderly East London residents who are suffering from loneliness and isolation over the Christmas holidays.

Tower Hamlets Friends and Neighbours have provided befriending and advocacy services to elderly residents for over 70 years. Now, due to Covid, their telebefriending services are more important than ever for those who cannot see friends or loved ones in person.

THFN said their services enhance residents’ “quality of life, promote their wellbeing and increase their resilience.”

The program has won the Counsel and Care Volunteering Befriending and Support Service Award in 2006 and the Local Hero Excellence Initiative in 2009.

The service has even helped to make bonds past a work service, with a THFN volunteer saying: “I give my time, but I get back so much.”

In recent years, the charity would speak to roughly 250 older people, but that number has increased to over 400 this year and continues to steadily climb now that the holidays are approaching.

According to THFN’s website, most callers are over 80 years old with long-term health issues or limited mobility. 97 per cent referred to the service have depression and 40 per cent have dementia.

Volunteers are expected to regularly check up on their elder clients. They provide support to accessing health and care services, enable self-advocacy to understand problems that may arise when alone, and partake in activities such as crafts, seated exercises or reminiscing.

The staff also speak a range of languages including Hindi, Bengali, Arabic, and French, reflecting the diverse ethnic makeup of the borough.

Elder loneliness awareness

Tower Hamlets has seen an increase in people experiencing isolation due to recent lockdowns and social distancing. According to a Healthwatch Tower Hamlets impact of Covid-19 survey, 32 percent of residents reported feeling socially isolated.

A 2016 Loneliness and Isolation in [Tower Hamlets] Older People report showed that 10 percent of the over 65 national population were likely to be lonely “all or most of the time”. However, Tower Hamlets was estimated to be at 16 per cent or 2,600 residents, although this is likely to be grossly underestimated.

Tower Hamlets Council has set up a loneliness task force in the borough to identify how the needs of people who experience loneliness can be better met. They hope to spark a society-wide effort to befriend and assist neighbours and the vulnerable including the elderly, which may lead to a permanent increase in social capital.

If you would like to make a referral or learn more about THFN services, you can check their website here or call 020 8983 7979.

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