It’s a Friday afternoon and 70-year-old Joseph has just put on the smartest outfit in his wardrobe because he is expecting a visit from one of the only people he sees every week, his friend Kito.
The pair are never short of something to talk about: politics, news events and films being conversational favourites – not forgetting their beloved sports, of course. Before long, Joseph will joke the coffee Kito, 48, has made him tastes disgusting. It is the same routine of friendship acted out every week.
But unlike relationships made in other parts of their lives, Kito and Joseph didn’t fall into each other’s lives through circumstance. Instead, they sought each other out through the Compassionate Neighbours project.
The London-based project has been run by St Joseph’s Hospice for the last three years. Since 2015 it has seen 270 volunteers (speaking 28 different languages between them) sign up to take part.
Ranging in age from 27 to 107 years old, the aim is to bring people together for a minimum of one hour per week to combat the problems of loneliness and isolation for those facing terminal or chronic illness.
Joseph and Kito’s experience is just one of many relationships that prove the project is working.
I hope Kito will always be my friend...” Joseph
“I hope Kito will always be my friend,” says Joseph, who was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998. “I really look forward to seeing him. He tells me stories that make me laugh and we talk about everything.”
Although they have their scheduled Friday meetings, Kito sometimes pops in if he’s in the neighbourhood too, taking Joseph his favourite lemonade. He says: “Joseph will say: ‘I’m not ready, I’ve got my pyjamas on’, but he’s always really pleased to see me anyway.”
Another volunteer who has made a firm friend through the project, is 41-year-old Gemma, who visits 80-year-old Helen, once a week. Suffering with short-term memory problems, the octogenarian is completely isolated and has no family or visitors, apart from her carers.
“When I first went to see Helen she would have trouble remembering me,” says Gemma, who has been visiting for over 12 months now. “Helen writes notes for herself to remember important things and I was really touched when I saw a note she had written for herself that said ‘Gemma – my friend’.”
Helen says: “My memory isn’t great, I know that and sometimes I forget that Gemma is coming to visit me but it’s always lovely to see her. We talk about the old days and what’s going on in the world. She’s become a friend to me and I really enjoy spending time with her.”
Another pair who had a slightly rocky start are Anthony, 55, and his neighbour Fred. Antony first joined Compassionate Neighbours after his partner passed away. “I was feeling really down and was isolating myself.”
When he first met Fred he struggled to understand him. “I could never read what was going on in his head,” he says. “One day I played him some music. His face lit up and that was the start of our beautiful friendship. Now every time I go to see him he says ‘play the music and get the kettle on my friend’.”
Lots of the volunteers explained that although they all lead busy lives, volunteering had helped them to see how much of a difference they could make to their neighbours and those around them who didn’t have support.
When Helen, 37, first started helping out Arthur, 89, she was struck by the things he needed assistance with, and how much she could help: “One experience that really sticks with me was when Arthur asked me to help him vote in the local mayoral election. He had the paperwork and he’d filled it out correctly, but he just wanted me to check it over.”
“When I read it through I realised how unnecessarily complicated the form was and how much anxiety this kind of thing can bring up for older people. It was lovely to be able to reassure him. And when I popped his voting papers in the post box, I had a real moment of pride about helping him vote.”
St Joseph’s Hospice are hoping that if the programme continues to be a success that they will be able to roll it out further across the UK.
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