Sarah Ingram took a six-month sabbatical from her job at John Lewis to help a national charity tackle loneliness in older people. She tells Fab After Fifty about her challenge.
Most of us would probably admit to feeling lonely now and again but older people who live alone without family or friends can often go for weeks on end with no social contact whatsoever.
Loneliness can lead to depression and other problems, and according to research by Age Concern and Help the Aged in 2009, over one million older people are often or always lonely.
In February 2009, 54-year-old Sarah Ingram from Cambridge decided to make a difference by working with Contact the Elderly. The charity aims to relieve the acute loneliness of isolated older people aged 75 or more by organising free afternoon tea parties one Sunday a month for small groups within local communities.
Sarah took six months off work as an administrator to rise to the challenge, thanks to the Golden Jubilee Trust scheme run by John Lewis which allows staff a secondment with a local charity.
Sarah’s goal was to set up the charity’s first ever tea party groups inCambridge, find volunteers to run the groups and encourage older people to go along for tea, chat and companionship one Sunday a month.
Volunteer drivers would take the older guests to and from the tea parties while hosts would welcome the group into their home for afternoon tea. Sarah’s role as group coordinator would be to ensure the tea parties ran smoothly by liaising with the older guests and other volunteers.
Inspired by her mother who had died
Sarah’s main inspiration to help Contact the Elderly came from her mother who had died the previous year.
“My mother was always very grateful that she had family who loved her and kept in touch with her and she felt very sorry for older people who didn’t have that support. I wanted this to be a tribute to her memory,” she said.
Sarah’s plan to set up the groups in Cambridge seemed straightforward on paper but at the start she felt daunted.
“The first couple of weeks were a low point as I had a sense of panic that I wouldn’t accomplish it.
“I also found working at home under my own steam made me feel really cut adrift from the support mechanisms you get at a place of work.
“Your day is very structured when you go out to work so I had to acclimatise to a different way of working,” she said.
To help her Sarah used a written guide to setting up the groups and sought advice from all sorts of people, including workers at other charities. In stepping outside her comfort zone, she learned to overcome some fears and recognise her abilities.
“It made me do things that I’ve always hated doing, like picking up the phone and making a call.
“I also discovered that I could network and spot an opportunity and I had a real sense of achievement that I had done what I set out to do. It definitely boosted my confidence,” she said.
Providing a lifeline of friendship for the elderly
By July that year the first group had launched in Cambridge and another was in the pipeline. Thanks to Sarah, there are now three groups and up to 18 older people meet once a month for afternoon tea, which provides a vital lifeline of friendship.
Sarah said: “The older guests look forward to the tea parties enormously and tell me that they don’t know what they would do without them.
“The get-togethers are also great fun for the volunteers – they meet some extraordinary people who have the most amazing stories.
“They also know that what they’re doing is really important to the older guests so they get that sense of doing something good.”
Being a host requires a commitment of just a couple of hours once or twice a year and a home with easy access and a downstairs toilet. All that drivers need is a car, a full driving licence and a few spare hours on one Sunday a month.
Contact the Elderly has over 5,500 volunteers nationwide but is on the hunt for more. For more information about volunteering, please contact freephone 0800 716543, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk You can also find us on Twitter @contact_teas, as well as on Facebook.