For all the horrors wrought on the world over the last 18 months, one thing that has been brought into sharper focus than ever before is the number of people living in isolation: far away from anyone to converse with, dealing with loneliness every single day of their lives. While the pandemic may have shone a bright light on this problem, loneliness is not a new thing - particularly amongst older people. Over the last two decades, the number of people in the UK who are over 75 and who live alone has gone up to a staggering 2.2 million.
Under various guises, Re-engage has been addressing this issue since 1965, when a man by the name of Trevor Lyttleton encountered an older woman living by herself with no electricity and decided to do something about it. Lyttleton invited her to get together with some other people and from that simple but important
moment, upon hearing how much it had meant to her, the organisation was born, blossoming into a charity soon after. First it was called Contact. Several years later, it became Contact The Elderly. And in 2019, under the stewardship of new CEO Meryl Davies, it was relaunched under its current moniker.
Since then, during more normal times, their work has taken the form of tea parties – soon starting up again – with over 900 taking place monthly across the UK, where small groups of isolated adults convene to converse and buoy each other’s spirits. But, of course, in recent times, this has not been possible.
The charity, like so many organisations, has been forced to pivot, launching what they dubbed ‘Call Companions.’ Their many volunteers – prior to Covid, they already numbered about 14,000; there were 2,000 new applications in the early stages of the pandemic; and 6,000 in the last year – instead tasked with making sure their 8,500 guests received regular phone calls during lockdown. This new form of connection has been a huge success: so much so that it will continue long into the future, into a time when coronavirus is but a distant memory.
The ‘matching process’ of the 'Call Companions' service is what makes it special. A lot of consideration goes into making sure that the people being connected to each other have common interests – whether that be where they grew up, or what they did for a living – so that a genuine friendship can be formed. Everyone at Re-engage has heartwarming stories aplenty to tell. For example, one older woman called Margaret from Essex, whose mother was from Paris. She asked to be matched with someone who spoke French, because that was the language she spoke when she was growing up. Re-engage put her in touch with a volunteer called Natalie who speaks French, and it quickly transpired that Natalie grew up in exactly the same part of Paris as Margaret’s mother. The pair have now been speaking (in French, of course) since September.
Tragically, Margaret’s husband was in a care home over much of the pandemic, and unfortunately she was only able to visit him once in seven months before he passed away in December. A horrible situation, and one during which Margaret told the Re-engage team she would not have made it through without Natalie’s calls. This story one of many powerful examples of the importance of this work.
Serendipitously based just down the road from Re-engage’s offices, Carolina Bucci had been hit by the pandemic. In mid-February 2020, its eponymous founder, as she had many, many times before, boarded a flight from London to Florence: the Italian city in which she was born and that, since 1885, has been the beating heart of her family’s business. Stepping off the plane that day, she was greeted by people in hazmat suits taking her temperature. Soon after that, before it became obligatory to do so in London, her flagship store back home had shuttered its doors, production in Italy having ground to a halt. It felt like a time to do something, And the work being done up the street by Re-engage chimed with her.
An initial donation was made. Two bracelets, with proceeds going to Re-engage, were designed. But far beyond that, a relationship was established: one that will stretch far beyond the horrors of the pandemic. The connection – like the connections made between Re-engage’s volunteers and its guests – is a more personal, permanent one. Aside from the money proffered to help, many of the staff instantly registered to become call companions; one of the in-house graphic designers has been helping out with Re-engage’s materials.
Re-engage, for their part, will need all the help they can get - such are the scale of their plans for the coming years. In the immediate future, the tea parties will be restarted. Call companions will be expanded, both in scale and in terms of the people it will reach. The charity are in the process of setting up a new LGBTQIA+ service, as older people in this community have been found to be particularly vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. There will be more efficient, faster training for volunteers, the intention being that they can more quickly shoulder the responsibility of the very small – just 39, with five of those part time – but extraordinary core team who work in the office.
The hope is that post-pandemic, people will be far more aware of the sheer number of people who are living in isolation, and want to help...and in the process, make a life-enhancing connection of their own.