“Being a befriender for the last 6 months has changed how I think about being alone” – Peter

South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) is the leading organisation for Age Better in Sheffield, and Peter has worked at SYHA for 5 years. He spoke to us about his work on Age Better in Sheffield during lockdown, as he took on the role of a befriender.

Peter is SYHA’s Volunteer Development Co-ordinator, and he provides support in recruiting, training, inducting and retaining volunteers on the Age Better in Sheffield projects. Over lockdown, Peter took on the role of a dedicated befriender, offering conversation and connection to people experiencing isolation.

“Hi everybody, I’m Peter Conlan and I’ve worked at SYHA for over 5 years.”

Most of my 30 year career before that was spent in the NHS and the Civil Service, both were very rewarding but also very structured. SYHA was a breath of fresh air to me – test and learn, flexible working and a chance to explore new approaches to how to get tasks done.

My befriending role with past participants of the Wellbeing Practitioners project, delivered in partnership with Sheffield Mind, is a great example of how SYHA encourages its staff to work in ways that aren’t standard and allows for a lot of personal choice and independence.

“It’s often said that people living alone aren’t necessarily lonely and, on the other side of the coin, people can be with somebody but still feel isolated.”

Falling into a befriending role as a result of the impact of Covid 19, I was quick to realise how true these clichés could be.

Early on in lockdown, I was asked if I would contact beneficiaries from the Wellbeing Practitioners project, managed by Sheffield Mind, to ask how they were coping with the ‘new normal’ and if they needed to be guided towards support services. It isn’t an over-statement to say that I was staggered by the positive nature of the responses I received. That isn’t to say that everybody was happy with their lot or wanted help – far from it.

“But, there was almost unanimous appreciation from those that answered my call that somebody had phoned out of the blue and asked if they were okay.”

Nearly everybody told me how much they’d valued the input they’d received from Sheffield Mind in the past. There were those who asked for details of food delivery services and others – most people – that just wanted to say thank you.

There were also a small number who said they’d really appreciate a regular call, just so they could hear a voice from the outside. I agreed willingly, because from the first instance, it was clear that this small gesture would benefit me and them. I’ve found this crisis difficult. ‘Social’ is my middle name and, being told I had to shield for 12 weeks set alarm bells ringing in my head. When I made those phone calls, I realised other people were also unsure about how they’d cope in the coming months and, working in partnership to get through seemed a sensible approach.

I talk to everybody once or twice a week; we’ve no set agenda or focus; we’re flexible and allow each other to say “not today, thank you”; and, by being consistent, we’ve built up trust and confidence. I’ve learnt about how hard it is to be dependent on carers coming into your home 4 times a day. I appreciate how hard it can be to care for your son who is 30 and will always be reliant on you. I’ve shared the frustrations of being brought up being told that asking for help is a weakness.

One special moment of joy was a telephone call from one of my regular contacts. On behalf of Age Better, I’d arranged to send her some flowers after she’d broken two ribs following a fall in her flat. She was completely thrilled, laughing and crying with appreciation. That’s made me think, as we start to come out of lockdown, what’s next?

There’s no rush for that, though. We’ll give each other as much time and space as we need. It does beg the question, though – knowing there is a genuine need for this intervention, how can we resource it?  Or, do we just walk away and leave people to remember befriending as a positive moment from Covid-19 and Age Better in Sheffield?

“Being a befriender for the last 6 months has changed how I think about being alone.”

Never make assumptions, never think you have wisdom without knowledge. Sometimes our instincts are just a cover for making our own lives a little simpler.