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The heartwarming project helping older people feel less lonely

Keith Begg and his cat, Hannah.

Loneliness is a growing issue that can lead to physical illness, particularly for older people, and some experts say we are set for a loneliness epidemic that will be as serious a public health issue as obesity. On the International Day of Older Persons, we present one project trying to change that.

When Keith Begg moved into his St Lukes home in a group of four flats 40 years ago, he’d been married to his second wife, Veronica, for one year and it was the kind of community where everyone knew their neighbours. Now, at 90 years old he’s still in the same house with his fifth cat, Hannah, but without Veronica. He’s cheerful, energetic, reads Time magazine cover to cover each week, and, on a chilly Monday evening, is chatting away to his friend Vicki, half a century his junior. He tells her about a crayfish venture in his youth to the Chatham Islands, how his first wedding at age 21 cost “17 and sixpence” at a registry office, and how Hannah is the second cat he has owned named Hannah (he and Veronica just really liked the name).

The stories keep coming. Hannah, the very large tortoiseshell cat is dozing happily and Vicki is listening intently while dinner cooks in the next room. Sometimes, Keith will treat his guest to a mini concert on his piano or his electric organ. Vicki has been coming to visit Keith every Monday night for two years. “She brings me really up to date with what’s going on,” says Keith. For Vicki, Keith provides “a different perspective” from her friends of her own age.

They both look forward to their Monday night dinners. They aren’t related, she isn’t his carer, she isn’t the daughter of his friend – their friendship was forged with the help of Age Concern Auckland.

Vicki attends to dinner between chatting with Keith.

When Vicki’s friend, Justine, found herself with some spare time on her hands, she contacted Age Concern, keen to have dinner with an older person one night a week. Age Concern’s accredited visiting service connected her with Joan, a woman in her eighties who’d never been married. Keith and Veronica lived next door and along with Vicki, joined in on Justine and Joan’s parties.

Joan passed away in 2016. Veronica moved to hospital. Justine and Vicki fell out of touch, though she often still visits Keith. The party moved next door to Keith’s house and was reduced to three – Vicki, Keith, and Hannah the cat. Vicki eagerly continued their Monday night visits.

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At this stage Keith was visiting Veronica in the hospital every day to eat lunch with her and read her Woman’s Day. She passed away this year.

Vicki brings a basket of food and they talk and cook and eat. Keith, an enthusiastic raconteur, tells stories, plays his instruments and does the dishes. Though their friendship came about in more of a roundabout way than a direct connection through Age Concern, both parties heartily encourage others to contact the agency to take up a similar arrangement.

Keith's friend Vicki says he has “a different perspective” from her friends of her own age.

Age Concern connects older people, usually over 65, with visitors screened through a police check and references, who have a good heart and time to commit.  They also offer other social connection services that aren’t necessarily one-on-one for people who are looking for something different.

The service is designed to make the clients feel less lonely – and it works – the figures from Age Concern’s yearly surveys speak for themselves.

The surveys found 90 percent of older people feel less lonely after being connected with a visitor, and 91 percent feel happier. And 92 percent of older people think of their visitor as a genuine friend – as is the case with Keith and Vicki; the friendships that result from the service are genuine.

One older man with very little sight was referred to Age Concern when his usual, active part in a volunteer community service group was halted after he became housebound due to a leg amputation. Age Concern matched him with a younger man who was new to town, who then joined the older man’s community group and as a result, became more engaged with his new home. They go to activities together and the younger man visits the older when he’s in respite care or hospital. 

Age Concern have story after story of friendships like this, and with a tissue on hand, glowing testimonials of how clients’ lives have been improved by the service:

“It has made me feel more wanted, and has given me more to look forward to each day.”

“I feel less lonely and more engaged with people and part of the community.”

 “My visitor has become my true friend, and a lovely person to know. She makes me very happy.”

“When I am alone all day I feel very sad, but when a visitor arrives I feel much better.”

To read more about Age Concern's accredited visiting service, click here.