‘To one lonely and isolated person I can change their world’

Volunteers make a ‘huge difference’ in combating loneliness and supporting older people

Loneliness is an epidemic in our society with one-third of older Irish adults saying they have felt the swell of loneliness at certain stages during their day. Being lonely manifests itself in various ways and is not necessarily due to social isolation – though obviously the Covid-19 pandemic has only exasperated the problem. We can be in a crowded room with family and friends and still feel lonely.

Loneliness comes from the emotions associated with feeling disconnected from others. With fewer social interactions, we are falling short when it comes to making meaningful relationships that last. It is these relationships which make us feel seen, wanted and understood. For the elderly, these interactions are as important as ever, yet they become increasingly limited. Charities such as Friends of the Elderly and ALONE are closing the gap between loneliness and isolation and connecting like-minded people with our older generation. Every volunteer counts. Individually, they are making a difference in someone else's life by combatting loneliness, a known predicament to have an effect on our physical and emotional health.

Friends of the Elderly, Fundraising and Communications Manager, Deborah Costello notes how the charities services would not be possible without the volunteers who sign up with them. "We receive no government funding and rely on volunteers to help support our services," says Costello. "We are a team of three staff and in 2019, through our 200 active volunteers, we made 5,096 home visits, 25,480 friendly calls and 150 social clubs. Our volunteers provided 21,822 volunteer hours."

Time is all volunteers need give when making a connection with someone else. When it comes to experiencing loneliness, time is exactly what is needed. “Sometimes volunteers feel they can make drastic changes, but they then realised that what they are doing is enough,” says Costello. Mary, a Friends of the Elderly Volunteer, says, “I now realise I cannot change the world, but to one lonely and isolated person I can change their world.”


‘Extra social contact’

Seán Moynihan, CEO of ALONE, says volunteers play a vital role in combating loneliness and supporting older people. "Research tells us that hundreds of thousands of older people in Ireland experience loneliness," he said. "ALONE volunteers visit and call older people who may be feeling lonely or may simply want some extra social contact in their week. These calls and visits make a huge difference to people's lives. Our volunteers step in to provide companionship and support but often they go on to make lifelong friends."

The role of volunteers has become even more important in the work of ALONE which has continually seen changes in its 40 years servicing the community. Studies now show isolation and loneliness increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by about a third. Volunteers keep our communities healthy and well and without them the charity could not provide their services.

“Local services close,” says Moynihan, “Families move away, and often we don’t know our neighbours like we used to, and this particularly impacts us as we get older. Volunteers are vital in filling the gap. There is so much that would not get done without our volunteers.”

With more than 2,000 volunteers now actively giving their time to support the charity and make a difference, ALONE appreciates how vital their volunteers are. “We have a fantastic culture of volunteerism in ALONE,” says Moynihan who acknowledges the volunteers who are involved in every level of the organisation, including the board.


“We are always looking for new volunteers across the country, and often we need volunteers faster than we can find them. We ask our volunteers from the very beginning for a commitment of at least one year, but many have been volunteering for much longer. Our longest-running volunteer has been with us for over 35 years. It’s important to us that the older person who is getting a volunteer visitor has consistency and that their volunteer isn’t changing regularly so that we can enable them to build up a relationship. Volunteering is just a few hours of your month, but it’s also a commitment.”

ALONE match volunteers with an older person in their area with similar interests to help get the conversation and interaction going. A great deal of effort goes into training, supporting and informing volunteers routinely caring for both the volunteer and the elderly. “Many new volunteers come to us because they have had strong, positive relationships with older family members, neighbours, and friends, and they would like to give back,” says Moynihan. “Sometimes it may take a little time before a new volunteer will go on their first visit. It’s really important that we can make sure both the volunteers and the older people who use the service have the best experience possible.”


Jo Gleeson started volunteering with ALONE in 2015 following routinely visiting an elderly relative after recognising the isolation older age brings. Jo was matched with Norah who is blind and enjoys walking. "I describe this as a 'match made in heaven' as I also really enjoy walking," says Jo.

“Once a week for an hour, I bring Norah for a walk and I also help, when needed, with a local shop, ATM, check correspondence and matching colours – all the things which sighted people take for granted. Norah and I get on really well together and over the years have built a firm friendship and respect for each other based on loyalty and trust.”

Over the years volunteering with ALONE, Jo has found the charity staff and other volunteers to be helpful and friendly, making giving her time to the organisation a blessing. She feels confident and supported by everyone at ALONE which helps her in return to make a difference to Norah. “I really get so much myself from volunteering with ALONE.” Says Jo. “I look forward to visiting Norah and I know it means a lot to her as well. It is a very special privilege to be someone else’s eyes on each visit. I would give every encouragement to anyone considering volunteering with older people as we have a lot to learn from each other – the dreams of the young versus the life experience of the older person.”

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