Ashleigh Parker is 25 and loves socialising with friends and pole fitness. She also volunteers by visiting lonely elderly people – and loves having genuinely ‘old friends.’
I’m 25, a process scientist from Brighton and I’m a typical young woman who enjoys the occasional drink with friends, but I also love to spend time with my elderly friends too.
It might seem surprising, but one of my closest friends was Pat Arthur, who died recently aged 95. I was heartbroken and I miss her deeply, but I also treasure the friendship we shared and all the fun we had on my weekly visits to Pat’s house, arranged through a befriending scheme. I know my visits were the highlight of Pat’s week as she spent most of her days home alone – but we had so much fun, they were often a real highlight for me too.
Sadly though, Pat’s story is all too typical, as far too many old people today feel isolated and estranged from the younger generations. According to the Campaign To End Loneliness, there are around 1.1 million people aged over 65 in the UK, who are chronically lonely.
It’s not just a social crisis but a health crisis too, as research has proven that loneliness is as damaging to health as high blood pressure, lack of exercise or obesity – and has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Most of all, it’s just heartbreaking. Many old people go days without speaking to another person - imagine if that was your mum, or your granddad? That’s why I’m urging other young people to make friends with older people in their community.
I’ve even made a film with the help of Fixers, the charity which gives young people a voice, to show how fun intergenerational friendships can be.
You can watch it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Si0SEnUDEpQ&feature=youtu.be
I appeared in the film, and I had such a laugh with the older actor. The embarrassing story he tells is actually the tale of my aunt Shaz’s first date with her now-wife Julie! But everyone can relate to a funny date story, no matter how old they are.
My own interest in the elderly began when I was 16, and I was asked to teach the residents of a care home how to use some donated Wii games consoles. It was so much fun! I loved hearing all their stories – one man, Charlie, had so many happy memories of working as a bricklayer, which he’d absolutely loved. He really inspired me. For so many young people, life’s about money and image, success and fame. But if more young people spoke to the elderly they’d realise there’s more to life than being materialistic, or just what you see in magazines and on TV. Charlie taught me that whatever you do, as long as you adore it, you can be totally fulfilled. That’s what really counts!
In 2015, I started volunteering with a befriending group, The Neighbourhood Care Scheme, where I committed to an hour a week visiting Pat. She wanted someone to chat and play Scrabble with, and she was such a character. If I beat her, she’d joke “you’re not coming round again! You’re not allowed!”
Soon Pat was one of my closest friends – and when she told me she felt the same about me, it meant so much. I know my visits made her week, and I love that I made her happy. But Pat had an equally positive influence on me, she taught me to always be myself and gave me real confidence.
I really hope that I can encourage some other young people to start visiting an elderly person – I know some 16 year olds might say: “What are we going to talk about? I won’t have anything in common with a 70 year old, so why should I even try?” It’s true, life is so different now, and there’s a growing division between old and young, often fuelled by technology. But those old people were 16 once themselves and because they’ve lived through so much, you’re bound to have much more in common than you’d think.
I’m excited to see other projects launching across the UK, promoting more inter-generational socialising. A shared care home and nursery opened recently in London, while shared housing developments for students and the elderly are being planned. Why should we all be segregated by age, after all? Older people have so many amazing stories and skills, they’ve gained so much experience and wisdom, they can be smart and funny. I know my older friends have changed my whole outlook – they’ve taught me not to take life for granted, to grab opportunities, and to adapt to challenges at you without sulking.
Even if my campaign gets just one person to consider volunteering, then I’ve done my job. Just one hour, it’s not much to ask – but the impact on the person you visit is incredible. It makes them realise there’s someone out there who cares about them, that they’re not alone. And you’ll make a real friend.