‘Understanding Befriending’ – Our Response
Linking Lives UK was established as a charity to ‘address social isolation and loneliness primarily among older people’ and we work towards this aim by developing befriending projects in partnership with local churches across the UK. There are currently over 70 of these running either as home visiting projects or telephone befriending (or both).
Over recent years, there has been an increasing level of interest and concern about the impact of loneliness on the physical, emotional and psychological lives of people of all ages. This has intensified during the past year with the onset of Covid 19 and previous funding (of several million pounds) has been expanded amid further concern about long term implications.
Despite this heightened interest, the role and benefit of befriending services in addressing loneliness and social isolation has received little interest over recent decades, with an occasional passing reference as part of a list of suggested activities which could be used in local communities. It is against this background, therefore that we welcome the publication of a report commissioned by one of our funders – The Mercers’ Company (Earl of Northampton’s Charity) – entitled ‘Understanding Befriending’. The report examines the principles, practices and outcomes of thirteen well established befriending organisations, including Linking Lives UK, and makes a number of observations and recommendations
In general, it was recognised that befriending schemes are unlikely in themselves to reduce loneliness. (page 4) Whilst this may initially appear to call into question the work of such initiatives, there is a sense in which this finding will help to ‘ease the pressure’ in collecting evidence of reduced loneliness and matching long term outcomes with the activities of a particular organisation. There are, however, a number of key common benefits which were outlined (page 4).
Fostering a meaningful relationship: befriending creates a relationship that has value in itself for both service users and volunteers – This is an outcome that we see on a regular basis as – what begins as a slightly ‘mechanical’ introduction often develops into a mutually beneficial relationships for both parties. A study carried out for Linking Lives UK last year by Coventry University also found similar evidence with one volunteer explaining:
“It feels a great privilege to know and to have someone who trusts me enough to share and want to share stories of their childhood and upbringing. It has often provided me with a different way to look at things…I didn’t set out for it to be necessarily rewarding for me, but its certainly been incredibly enriching and enlightening…”
Awakening interests: volunteers can help service users reconnect with old interests or develop new ones to sustain them between befriending visits – Whilst we work hard to match volunteers with those sharing similar interests or hobbies, this is not always possible. When it does happen though, there is a significant benefit for both of those involved (see the Linking Lives case study – page 10). This recommendation, however, can be implemented in most settings with minimal additional resource or training.
Acting as an early warning system: befriending volunteers are often able to act as “canaries in the coalmine”, spotting emerging needs and flagging these to schemes for early action – We are aware that many volunteers have a key responsibility to raise any concerns or issues with their coordinators in relation either to possible safeguarding or wider health concerns. This element of the role of befrienders needs to be fully recognised for the value that it brings in maintaining the health and wellbeing of those receiving calls or visits.
In addition to these benefits, the report makes a number of key recommendations for befriending organisations including to:
Confidently communicate the value of the befriending relationship in and of itself to their funders, volunteers, service users and others – Our experience shows that often those receiving calls or visits as well as coordinators of projects have a good sense of the benefits that these interactions have for those involved. However, we will consider ways in which we can communicate the benefits that those receiving calls or visits are often having on their volunteers!
Support volunteers in encouraging service users to rekindle their interests and to take up activities that can structure their week and sustain them between visits – We are aware that this will be taking place on an ‘ad hoc’ basis in some situations, although not necessarily on a consistent basis. There are opportunities for us (and other charities) to embed this practice with a minimal amount of training and we will explore this option going forwards.
Explore a new framing, and case for support, for befriending built around its role in supporting independence, rather than reducing loneliness – This is arguably the most interesting recommendation of the report. Despite Linking Lives UK having been established primarily to address loneliness, our charitable objects are ‘to promote social inclusion among persons who are excluded from society because they are housebound….and assisting the to integrate into society’. We would therefore see our role as encouraging people (where possible) to increase their sense of independence and this will be particularly relevant over the coming months as Covid restrictions are eased. We would also support the recommendation made to funders to ‘recognise that they are investing in relationships rather than outcomes’ (page 47)
Take action to extend befriending services to more people with cognitive or hearing impairments, who don’t speak English as a first language, or others who are currently under-represented, including support for volunteers and links to other services – The policy of Linking Lives UK, based on several years of experience now) is that whilst we do have eligibility criteria for the acceptance or referrals, we will always do what we can to find a volunteer matching the circumstances of a person being referred. We have however, come across many examples of volunteers with exactly the right experience and knowledge (whether in relation to language, health or specialist expertise) to enable a suitable match to be made! We will, however, be considering ways in which we can reach excluded groups and individuals in a more proactive way in the future.
We welcome the primary recommendations and findings of this report. We would like to see its’ contents being circulated to key national and regional stakeholders including local authority and health commissioners, trusts and foundations and befriending organisations. We celebrate the value of befriending relationships and the impact that this has on the health and wellbeing of all involved as well as – ultimately – across wider society.