A Sheffield charity hopes multi-lingual students will sign-up as volunteers to help cut loneliness amongst older people in the city.
George Joseph is one of a handful of students from Sheffield Volunteering – University of Sheffield, Students’ Union – to have already signed-up to Sheffield Church’s Council for Community Care’s (SCCCC) ‘Good Neighbour Scheme’, which matches volunteers with isolated, older residents.
The 23-year-old’s ability to speak Malayalam as well as English means he could in the future be matched to an older person whose alternative first language means they are even more isolated within their community.
George said: “I’ve been volunteering with SCCCC for more than six months now. It all started when I was travelling on a bus. I said hello to an older person and they stopped and had a conversation with me for about twenty minutes. They kept talking to me every time they saw me.
“At first I thought they were just being friendly, but it then dawned on me that this person was talking to me because they had very little interaction with other people- despite having the advantage over some older people of being mobile and able to go outdoors.
“My own lockdown experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic have also made me better understand the issue of adult loneliness, prompting me to carry out further research.
“That’s when I signed up as a volunteer with SCCCC’s Good Neighbour Scheme, which I’ve been supporting for more than six months now.
“I’ve been matched with a gentleman called Peter and I telephone him once a week. We’ve developed a really good relationship, based upon mutual respect and friendship. Even though we never met in person, Peter is very open and understanding and our friendship has benefitted my own communication skills too.
“We talk about nearly everything, from the little things that happen in our daily lives, to big events in the news. It is genuinely interesting interacting with people from other generations and to listen to their perspective on current issues. It’s also fascinating to hear stories from their lives and to see how things were done a few decades ago and how things have changed.
“Peter has experienced the world much more than I have, so it’s really interesting to hear stories from his life. We also have a few similar interests such as motorbikes and cars, so conversations never dry up.
“I am fortunate that as well as speaking English, I am fluent in Malayalam- a language which is mainly spoken in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Whilst I’ve not yet been matched to a service user who speaks Malayalam, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to put this skill to good use in the future, potentially helping a fellow Malayalam speaker whose language means they are even more cut off from their community than they might otherwise have been.”
Rehneesa Inez, who runs the Inclusive Community Care project at SCCCC said: “We’re always excited to hear from anyone like George who is willing to give up a few hours of their free time to help an isolated, older person in desperate need to some regular companionship. We do believe students at both of the city’s universities are ideal candidates for this role though- particularly where they have a language other than English.
“Language can be a massive barrier to some people in our communities accessing the support of friendship schemes like ours. Whilst we always look to match our volunteers with a wide range of services users- English speaking or otherwise- the more languages we have available to us within our fantastic army of volunteers, the more lives we will potentially be able to change.”
SCCCC launched a new branch of its successful Good Neighbour Scheme last year.
The Inclusivity Community Care project particularly aims to provide targeted support to older people from diverse backgrounds, some of whom face cultural or language barriers which prevent them from accessing the support they need.
The charity is particularly in need of volunteers who can speak either Bengali, Punjabi or Arabic.