Mardi Gras

Last week, I talked about my Wednesday activities.

This week, I’ll give my Tuesday a shot. Tuesday is my other “fixed” day, an afternoon of voluntary work with Age UK, the UK’s nationwide charity for senior citizens. This one is a weekly gig at their office in Salisbury, and I have this three-hour window, governed of course by bus times, between 1-4 pm.

The work? Again, it surprises me that I make a difference. I have a list of around ten people, I pick up the phone, and chat with them. Each week, the same ritual. That’s it. It’s a service that the charity offers to people who might want it, I don’t think they attach any strings. They are very limited by the resources that they can throw at issues, but telephone befriending is one service that they can offer. The criteria? I suppose it is as vague as “somebody who could use a chat” – this can often include housebound clients, but can sometimes clients who have a healthier social life than I do!

I started doing this a year and a bit ago, and I visit Age UK’s office to do so. In that time many clients have become friends. How’s the knee? or, How’s the cat? are not unusual. It is good for me to get out regularly, it is also handy for me to perhaps pick a few groceries up in Salisbury. It’s not lost on me that, by going into their office, the client data never leaves their possession. I don’t have to worry about losing slips of paper, about a client’s phone number being accidentally stored in my phone’s memory, or even of my home phone number being broadcast to clients. If I talk about a client to my wife, say, I have to make sure it is anonymised, but that was forever the case in the banking environment. She is a nurse and has to behave the same with me.

I sometimes worry about clients. With physical health issues, it is easy. I satisfy myself that the client is seeing their doctor. As long as that is the case, the doctor is in a far better position to help than I am. Mental health and depression are altogether more worrying – the guy who has five children and twenty grandchildren, but who nevertheless is lonely because none of them ever call him. I do what I can – I’m not an expert but chatting usually helps. Even if just for a half-hour a week about something unrelated, it takes someone’s mind off their plight. I will try to find out about local activities, again, a diversion from the problem. But there are some areas where I’m just not qualified to speak, so I hold fire.

Time management can sometimes be an issue – as you’re dialling, you never know whether you have a thirty-minute conversation, or a five-second message, ahead of you. But as I’ve gotten to know the clients, some of them do want to chat for half an hour, others will quite firmly say, after two minutes, “well, thank you for calling, but I have to go now”. I can’t be put out. I can’t be put out that someone would sooner speak to another woman, or somebody of a similar age – I normally discover this early on, and just move on to the next client. I speak to one woman who doesn’t give more than a yes or a no, and so a lengthy conversation is difficult. I make sure she’s okay but can’t go much further. I stack the longest calls first – if I have three calls, and only ten minutes, to go, I can normally still call them and get out in time. The number of calls helps – the law of averages kicks in – they can’t all be out, surely? But there can still be an hour’s difference between long and short days. I have time, at the moment.

I have had a client die – when you’re speaking to a ninety-something-year-old, it’s going to happen now and then. Of course, this is somebody you’ve got to know over some time, so almost like the death of a friend. But I’ve known the various forms of life-support they’ve had, that they’ve been chair-bound, and maybe it was a release? My own idea about death kicks in. Talking to the partner, shortly after the death, was difficult, but made smoother when I said how much I had enjoyed our chats – I meant it, I still miss our weekly catch-up. That the family would not allow this 95-year-old a mobility scooter, for fear of her reckless behaviour, I thought was hilarious.

The charity itself is unusual. You’d think that a charity would start with one office, and spread gradually outwards until it became national. This charity is the polar opposite – before the Second World War, a family would look after its elders. However so many men were lost in the war, that for many seniors, there was no means of support. Lots of small independent charities sprang up, all with their own articles and trustees. Eventually two “federations”, Age Concern and Help the Aged, came into existence. They themselves combined into Age UK just ten years ago.

So, I go into their office and get the job done, as I did today. There’s never normally any drama. One of the clients missed their appointment at the Falls Clinic through no fault of their own – the taxi they’d booked to get to the hospital didn’t turn up, because it was waiting instead at the hospital, to bring them home – you couldn’t make this up! Putting humour to one side, they’ll wait six months for the next appointment – please don’t fall over for the next six months. Ridiculous! To add insult to injury, the client fell again last week – their leg just gives way. I have my fingers crossed for them.