‘I really just want to choose my own tomatoes.” It’s a simple enough request really and one which most of us can relate to. But, if you haven’t got the ability or confidence to get out on your own, choosing your own fruit might be as unobtainable as climbing a Munro.
And it was that simple desire expressed by an older woman who wasn’t able to do it on her own that was the catalyst that led to the start of a new volunteer shopping buddy services at Lifecare. It uses volunteers to help older people get out of the house and do their own shopping. It’s also far more than just practical stuff like getting to the shops or help with unpacking – it’s the social interaction that’s so impactful. Feeling less lonely because you have a cup of tea and a bit of chat after shopping has a huge, powerful effect.
For us to feel good about ourselves and maintain the best possible health, it is vital that we continue to be in control of our own lives for as long as possible and sometimes all that takes is a little bit of willing support.
The Lifecare project is just one of 74 different services for older people in the city looking for volunteers. At the heart of all of them is a desire to help older people maintain their independence and stay well for longer.
Changeworks’ Heat Heroes volunteers visit older people to help them understand fuel bills and how to stay warm for less.
Erskine Homes’ Forget-Me-Not volunteers help ex-servicemen with dementia remember the places and people that were important to them.
Community Connector volunteers help isolated older people get back into their communities, rebuild confidence and reconnect with other people and interests both old and new.
All these projects work with older people to help them maintain their lives, their independence, their dignity. Edinburgh, like the rest of the country, is seeing an upward trend in its older population. A recent council report, Edinburgh By Numbers, shows that in 2010 there were 35,400 people over 75 in the city. By 2020, there will be 39,500 and rising.
The same report shows us that although Edinburgh is the “happiest” of ten major UK cities and that the vast majority of us are satisfied with Edinburgh as a place to live, there are too many of these older people in our generous city, frequently spending days without speaking to another person. Research tells us that loneliness is more damaging to health than smoking.
Volunteering isn’t going to fix every problem. What it can do is make a vast difference, often in the quality of life for someone who a volunteer helps. It’s often forgotten but the simple act of someone choosing to give their time to help can make all the difference in the world.
So we celebrate volunteers – it is Volunteers Week after all. More than a third of us each week give a bit of time to someone else. Amazingly, research shows that that act of giving time is also a huge benefit to our own happiness. Help someone else and help yourself.
But at its most basic level the true prize is the difference we make. Take the older woman who was supported by a Community Connector volunteer and, as a result, was able to leave her sheltered accommodation for the first time in four years and to get back in touch with friends and enjoy going out with them again.
We have focused on older people here but volunteers are, thankfully, everywhere and helping out with everything. So, if you want to change the world or just make someone happy by helping them choose their own tomatoes, then get in touch with your Volunteer Centre through www.volunteeredinburgh.org.uk.
Harriet Eadie is the chief executive of Volunteer Centre Edinburgh.