Gilli Howarth – a befriending volunteer for Linking Lives Eastbourne – explains why she got involved with volunteering and how it has made a difference to her life.
When Gilli Howarth moved to Eastbourne in 2015, she was struck by a feeling of loneliness. “I felt God calling me to Eastbourne so knew it was the right move for me, however it was a very lonely first year of finding my feet. I knew one person – and not that well at that – so it was quite hard going.”
Gilli soon became involved with her local church, St John’s, where she heard about Linking Lives Eastbourne. “The coordinator, Mary, came to talk about the project and what they did and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to contribute to as soon as I got settled in the church.
“I was very familiar with what loneliness felt like and thought I could just sit there being sad and lonely, or I could reach out to others also experiencing loneliness but who didn’t have as much ability as I did to do anything about it. I didn’t think of myself as doing a kind deed for another, but more that we would both be sharing our humanity together.”
“He missed contact with somebody who could have lively chats with him, rather than just looking after him as an old man”
In 2019, Gilli became the Linking Lives rep for St John’s church and was also matched with her first Linking Lives friend. “I was matched with a gentleman in his late 90s called David*, who was incredibly on the ball mentally but not able to get out of the house. His family lived a long way away and his wife had died some time ago, so he just wanted someone to talk to. He was living a lot of the time in his memories, with no one to share the here and now.
“As a published writer he still wrote lots of his own poetry and had someone come in every so often to type it up, but he missed contact with somebody who could have lively chats with him about his writing, his travels and his broad life experiences, rather than just looking after him as an old man.”
Gilli began visiting David once a week for around an hour and a half. “I would read him his poetry, which he loved to hear me do. Once I had read it he would tell me the background of the poem and why he wrote it, which would let him go back down memory lane. We would also talk about music, gardening, his international travels and his time as a prisoner of war in Japan when he was 18.
“We talked about everything under the sun and he was a very interesting man.”
In December 2019, just months after Gilli started visiting, David sadly passed away. “He had had a fall and been taken to hospital, where I visited him about three times. One of my favourite memories was actually during my last visit to him, when he asked me to bring in his book of poetry and read out loud to everyone on the ward, telling them all to be quiet while I read.
“I stood there reading this poem I hadn’t read before – which was slightly saucy in that ‘wink wink’ old-fashioned English way – and when I got to the end it was a really saucy punchline. I looked at him and he just laughed with this twinkle in his eye because he knew he had set me up to do that. Everyone was laughing and it was really just wonderful. There he was in his very late 90s, in hospital and probably aware he didn’t have long left, and he was getting up to mischief!”
“She loves to have someone to talk to and will often be sat waiting by the phone when I call”
In February 2020, Gilli was matched with another Linking Lives friend – a lady in her 80s called Pauline*. “She had been referred to the service as she had become very isolated. She has really bad problems with her ankle and leg so her mobility is very poor and it’s not easy for her to get out and about. She doesn’t see anyone except for her carers, who come in twice a week to do their job but don’t have much time to sit and chat to her. She has also had lots of changes with her carers – one comes and one goes and she’s never really sure who she is going to have – so she isn’t able to form any sort of relationship with them.”
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Gilli was only able to meet Pauline once before changing to phone calls in March. “I normally call her twice a week for around three quarters of an hour and we have a really good chat. She gets really anxious – especially with all this Covid stuff, which has made her isolation even worse – so it really helps her to have someone to talk to, and she’s often waiting by the phone when I call. We talk about what she has been cooking, her favourite television programmes and her past career as a seamstress and tailor – anything at all really!
“After the first lockdown, we also managed to meet up outside at a hotel, where we sat on the terrace on a beautiful hot day and had tea, coffee and cakes. I thought we would be there around an hour but she had no desire to leave, and we ended up staying for ages! I could tell she enjoyed the meeting and it was really nice to see her.”
Gilli is looking forward to being able to visit Pauline again in the future. “I genuinely very much enjoy her company and we have definitely become friends. Both of my friendships have enriched my life in so many ways, including giving me a glimpse into history and things I never knew about – such as with David’s stories of his time in the army – and the sharing of practical advice and wisdom, with cooking and domestic tips from Pauline.
“It humbles me and touches my heart that both of them were vulnerable enough to say they were lonely and needed someone to talk to, and to share themselves with me in this way. I can’t imagine what it is like to have lost your partner of 60 years or not to have any family left and just be on your own with your memories and feeling that you’re so irrelevant. We can help to show people in this situation they are still cared about, they are still the same person they have always been, and they still have so much value. There’s so much richness to be had in understanding the perspective of someone who has lived a different life and is in a different stage of it now, and I feel so grateful and privileged to be able to experience this through befriending.”
*Names changed to protect privacy