Andy Harding on volunteering with Crich Careline
I thought talking to old ladies would be boring: all blue rinse and daytime TV. It turns out they’re into all sorts of weird stuff. Pro wrestling, for instance.
I still can’t recall how we got on to the topic, but one day I found myself embroiled in a debate with a 90-year-old granny about who’s the greatest wrestler of all time. Naturally, I was fighting The Rock’s corner – the People’s Champion, the Brahma Bull, the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment and now, of course, darling of Hollywood, having made an athletic leap into A-list action movies. How can you beat his ring presence and sassy put-downs, jabroni?
She was having none of it. She ushered in 6ft 11in, 48st man-mountain Giant Haystacks, towering behemoth of the 1970s and 80s wrestling scene. The phone bubbled with excitement. I listened as she described his legendary feud with baby-faced Big Daddy, former ally and team-mate before Haystacks went bad-ass and turned against him. ‘I used to get a front row seat and scream myself hoarse,’ she said, recalling the gargantuan brutes’ tour of English venues. ‘Flatten him!’
My wife Anna and I started volunteering for Crich Careline soon after we moved to the village four years ago. We wanted to get to know people locally, and to do something worthwhile that we could fit around our busy work lives. We spotted the ad in a local shop window and got in touch. It was all pretty easy, and very rewarding – just an hour or so one evening a fortnight, making calls to a handful of local elderly residents who’d signed up for the service. There was lots of support and guidance on hand to help us get started, but really it was very simple – these guys just wanted to chat. They had active minds and a need for friendship but had become isolated in older age, often due to physical immobility or their family having moved overseas.
So we chatted.
For one hour, I turned off the TV, signed out of Facebook, put away any distractions and gave four other human beings my undivided attention.
The conversations were quite varied, and often eye-opening. One gentleman was an avid chef and eager to pass on his (rather tasty) recipes. Another lady had a lifetime’s experience of animal husbandry and veterinary practice. When she learned that we had a backyard flock of chickens, she showered us with practical help on how to look after them. Did you know, for instance, that a hen’s favourite colour is red? It really is! (I have no idea why). We invested in some red feeders and water bowls, and the egg production skyrocketed.
Within the space of a few months, I’d learned about tap-dancing, tram-painting, how to milk a cow by hand (though I didn’t trust myself to try it) and the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Sometimes we paddled in the rock pools of popular culture (one lady turned out to be a huge Judge Rinder fan) and sometimes it got pretty deep – the outlook for Artificial Intelligence, animal consciousness and what it means to be human. On one occasion I put down the phone following a languid conversation about baking, and when I dialled my next caller was immediately engaged in a heavy dissection of Brexit, political accountability and the Austrian corruption scandal. Good job I had a strong coffee to hand!
Every now and then I’ve been reminded how vulnerable our service users are. Part of the value of Careline is the comfort in receiving a regular daily call to check things are all right. One weekend, our Saturday caller rang up to find that an elderly lady had completely run out of food – her usual shopping delivery hadn’t arrived, and she had no means of getting to the shops by herself as she struggled to walk. Thankfully, our volunteer was able to report this immediately and the woman’s fridge was filled to the brim later that day. It only took a few minutes of her time, but the call had made a huge difference to that lady’s wellbeing.
Many Careline volunteers become friends with their regular confidants. Anna and I popped round to see one of our long-standing service users on Christmas Day last year, for a bit of cake and a festive chat. Her eyes lit up when we entered the room, as she’d been expecting to spend the day alone. Another of the ladies using Careline was delighted when our youngest helper (a pupil volunteering as part of her school Duke of Edinburgh award) appeared at her 90th birthday party. As she later told me, beaming: ‘I heard a shy little noise behind me, someone softly saying hello, and I thought “I recognise that voice”. So I turned around and there she was.’
Of course, visiting service users or eating their birthday cake isn’t expected of Careline volunteers – it’s going above and beyond. But simply being a kind, friendly voice at the end of a phone can make a world of difference to an isolated person. It’s easy to forget how special this can be if you spend all your time within the same four walls.
To be honest, it cuts both ways. After a hectic day in the office, I find there’s something therapeutic about shutting out the busyness of the world, making a brew, putting my feet up and chatting to someone with a completely different perspective on life.
Why not give it a go?
Careline is completely dependent on volunteers and always looking for new people to help out. We’ve had folk from all walks of life – students, workers, full-time mums and those who’ve recently retired. All you need is a bit of time to talk, and to listen. You can even make the calls from home if that suits you best.
If you’re interested, drop us a line on 01773 853754 (Vanessa) or 01773 856228 (Peter), or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more!