CHRISTMAS is being made happier for elderly people thanks to a group which matches volunteers with the right skills to those who can benefit from their help.
Just one person who has been helped is Irene Howell, 79, who lost her husband of 54 years last Christmas.
Understandably she felt lonely but – thanks to the help of Swindon Circles – Irene, from Penhill, is now much happier, more active and boasts a wide circle of friends.
Chief among Irene’s new-found companions is Mandy Smith, 39, who visits her weekly for a chat and cup of tea as part of the Swindon Borough Council-run scheme.
Irene said: “She’s very nice and kind. We have a laugh together and she also helps me out, so I always look forward to her coming round.”
Their blossoming relationship started in January following two pieces of bad news – the death of Irene’s husband Norman and her falling and breaking her hip.
After being discharged from hospital Irene received help from the Red Cross with shopping and other household tasks.
However, Irene really missed and needed company and conversation.
She said: “I was miserable without Norman because we were together such a long time. We worked together, cooked together and he took me out in the car shopping. I didn’t know what to do without him.”
Being referred to Swindon Circles and matched with Mandy marked a positive turning point.
“I could see immediately that Irene was depressed and withdrawn. She wasn’t going out at all and was just bored and lonely,” Mandy said.
“We got on straight away and enjoyed chatting. She soon got used to me coming round and started to cheer up.”
It wasn’t long before they started going out together, either to the shops, pub, bingo or brass band concerts.
“Irene has really come out of her shell and gets out and about all the time, not just when I’m around,” said Mandy.
“She has also made friends with the neighbour, which is great to know that there’s someone looking out for her. Her nephew also visits when he can, around his work and family commitments.”
And mum-of-four Mandy, from Toothill, has also felt her spirits lift no end since she started volunteering.
“I was really down in the dumps before. Irene has definitely stopped me being so depressed and given me a sense of purpose. We’re best of friends and have a fine time putting the world to rights,” she said.
“My 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son also visit. It’s good for them too because older people have so much life experience and different perspectives to share.”
Irene has been entering the festive spirit by going to some lunches and music events.
‘She’ll be seeing friends and her nephew, so life is really looking up. She has a reason to live again and being part of that is such a rewarding feeling,” said Mandy.
Loneliness is a growing problem nationally, with more than half of older people claiming the television is their main company according to a recent Age UK survey. Widows are especially prone to loneliness and there is also evidence linking it to poor health and depression.
Swindon Circles has been running in the town for two years and now has more than 100 volunteers on its books, who support around 145 people aged between 70 and 101.
Coun Mary Martin, the council’s cabinet member for communities, said: “Swindon Circles is a wonderful scheme, which demonstrates the huge potential of volunteering to not only enrich but also perhaps even save lives.
“Mandy has certainly been a lifeline for Irene and it’s wonderful to hear how her social life and general sense of wellbeing has blossomed over the past year since the sad loss of her husband.
“If you’re looking to make a real difference in 2017, I would encourage anyone to consider volunteering.
“There are lots of other people like Irene in genuine need – sometimes just a bit of time and a listening ear can go such a long way.
“I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all our volunteers and that we look forward to hearing from others who would like to join them. Your contribution is invaluable.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about volunteering with the scheme, visit www.swindoncircles.org.uk or call 01793 465401.