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Tackling social isolation with Volunteer Befrienders

18th September 2014

September is Friendship Month, so in this week’s story we’re looking at our Volunteer Befrienders service, which pairs volunteers with clients who need a bit of extra day-to-day support.

Social isolation in Birmingham


Dr Andrew Coward at the Gateway Gala

In a speech at our Gala earlier this month, the chair of Birmingham South Central CCG, Dr Andrew Coward (pictured), referred to isolation as one of the “giants” that society needs to slay if health services are to be effective and we are truly to tackle the issue of health inequality.

We know that there is a strong correlation between isolation and poor health outcomes, but what’s often underestimated is the extent to which social isolation is an issue across the whole community, not just for older people.

In Birmingham, we see it affecting people who have recently arrived to the country, people for whom language is a barrier, and those with mental health issues, amongst many others. Just because someone lives in a city, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily feel part of a community, or have a support network of friends and family.

Many of our clients self-report as socially isolated. We don’t ask Health Trainer clients (yet), but we do ask Pregnancy Outreach Workers Service clients if they feel they have “little or no support from family or friends” when they are first referred, and around two thirds of POW clients say yes to this question.

The good news: we can tackle social isolation

The good thing about social isolation is that, unlike some health and social care issues, it can usually be tackled head-on. And the best thing is that tackling it relies on personal contact – it doesn’t rely on having a lot of money!

We already know from our own figures that POWs are able to reduce the number of clients who say they feel socially isolated by around 25%. So our Volunteer Befrienders service builds on that knowledge.

Like POWS, the Volunteer Befrienders service relies heavily on community knowledge and networking. It’s not just about visiting a person in their home; it’s about taking them out to meet other people, introducing them to social groups and community networks, and helping them to build their self-confidence and resilience.

Four of our befrienders are presented with awards at our Gala by Jenni Ord, Health Education West Midlands

Four of our befrienders are presented with awards at our Gala by Jenni Ord, Health Education West Midlands

Our job is to give volunteers the skills and credibility to help people in this way. We do this by working closely with GPs, so that they can confidently refer people to the service, and by training and qualifying the volunteers. So the service doesn’t just help those who are socially isolated; it helps the volunteers, too.

Volunteering has been shown to improve health and happiness, but volunteering with Gateway also gives people some crucial employability skills, including a City & Guilds qualification. Seven of the 20 befrienders who joined the service last year went from being unemployed to taking full-time employment.

And we already know that the service is saving money for the NHS. One local GP has an elderly patient who was repeatedly calling him out for home visits, although he found that her physical health was fine. He came to the conclusion that she just needed to talk things over with someone, so he referred her to the Volunteer Befrienders service, where we have paired her with a befriender. A GP home visit costs around £120, but for a volunteer to go out and meet someone costs much less than that (around £4 for a bus ticket, plus a small admin/management cost).

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