My late grandmother hated Christmas. Not because she was channelling Dicken’s Scrooge but because it was a time of the year when all her regular social and leisure activities stopped. She was faced with a long stretch of shorter days, colder weather and less opportunity to catch up with people. It wasn’t that she had no contact with people as friends and family regularly called but more the case that there was no meaningful human contact.

Christmas is one season when many people feel particularly lonely but it is by no means the only time.

Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they do fall ill (Marmot, 2010).

Also according to statistics 49% of those aged 75 and above currently live alone in the UK and with people expected to live longer in the future this figure will only go up. Five million older people consider the television as their main form of company and at least a ¼ million older people are likely to spend Christmas on their own.

One of our founding principles as a charity for former civil servants and their dependents was that we provided services and support to deliver friendship and companionship.

In the early days this was provided by our network of local community groups with many having (and some cases still do) a dedicated Welfare Officer sitting on their committee who would keep in contact with beneficiaries in their area.

Sadly, as the challenges of recruiting new local volunteers to help with the running of our groups has increased in the last ten years this service is no longer offered so widely which is why we launched first the Phone Buddy scheme in 2011 and then National Visitors Network in 2013 to offer companionship by telephone and home visits.

(Pictured above: Befriender Gillian with Jenny)

In the past year our volunteer befrienders have made over 2,700 visits and phone calls to those beneficiaries experiencing loneliness or social isolation which has made a tremendous impact on their health and wellbeing. In our 2016 annual Monitoring & Evaluation exercise nearly every beneficiary said that they felt less lonely and the quality of their life has improved because of their participation on the National Visitors Network. Some of the feedback comments included, “the National Visitors Network made me feel that there was someone out there willing to talk and listen to me” and “I enjoyed the company of a fresh face and mind, particularly as we have similar interest, despite our 30 years age difference.”

(Pictured above: Befriender Mertie with Alan)

As we look ahead to 2018 our work in the field of delivering services to provide companionship and friendship will remain at the forefront of our communications and fundraising strategies. I look forward to seeing both the National Visitors Network and Phone Buddy Scheme continuing to grow whilst we also explore and research new initiatives that can enhance and improve the lives of our beneficiaries.

Maintaining the virtuous circle
The befriending services have also had a positive benefit to the engagement the CSRF has with other civil service and public sector organisations. A partnership with The BT Benevolent Fund (where the CSRF’s befriending services are now available to their beneficiaries) started this year and a further partnership with the Education Support Partnership is in the process of being finalised. The Civil Service Insurance Society Charity Fund has supported the National Visitors Network since its launch and both the Civil Service Insurance Society and CSSC Sports & Leisure have sponsored fundraising events that the CSRF has run to add funds to these core services.

Lonely at Christmas?
Community Christmas believes that no older person should be alone at Christmas unless they want to be. They offer a helpful directory of activities taking place around the country during the festive season. If you are likely to be alone at Christmas and don’t want to be have a look online at https://communitychristmas.org.uk/ or call 0800 063 9285

How you can get involved
If you’ve got some time to give weekly, fortnightly or monthly and could make a commitment of at least 6 months to make a home visit to a beneficiary in need of some companionship we’d like to hear from you. The registration process is simple and would involve a one-to-one training seminar. Alternatively, if you (or someone you know) are interested in registering to receive a visit or a call then use the contact information shown here to start that process too. Please note: depending on the availability and location of befrienders there may be a wait involved but we will advise you of that on enquiry.

You can contact us by phone on 020 8691 7411 (all calls treated confidentially), email: [email protected] or visit www.csrf.org.uk/befriending-schemes