When Irene Howell lost her husband of 54 years last Christmas, she felt lonely and completely lost. But thanks to the help of Swindon Circles, the 79-year-old, from Penhill, is now much happier, more active and boasts a wide circle of friends.
Chief among Irene’s new-found companions is Mandy Smith, aged 39, who visits her weekly for a good old natter and cup of tea as part of the council-run scheme, which matches volunteers with time and skills to share with older people who need their help.
Irene said: “She’s very nice and kind. We have a laugh together and she also helps me out, so I always look forward to her coming round.”
Their blossoming relationship started in January following two pieces of bad news – the death of her husband Norman and her falling and breaking her hip.
After being discharged from hospital she received help from the Red Cross with shopping and other household tasks. However, what Irene really missed and needed was company and conversation.
She said: “I was miserable without Norman because we were together such a long time. We worked together, cooked together and he took me out in the car shopping. I didn’t know what to do without him.”
Being referred to Swindon Circles and matched with Mandy marked a positive turning point.
“I could see immediately that Irene was depressed and withdrawn. She wasn’t going out at all and was just bored and lonely,” Mandy said.
“We got on straight away and enjoyed chatting. She soon got used to me coming round and started to cheer up.”
It wasn’t long before they started going out together, either to the shops, pub, bingo or brass band concerts.
“Irene has really come out of her shell and gets out and about all the time, not just when I’m around. She has also made friends with the neighbour, which is great to know that there’s someone looking out for her. Her nephew also visits when he can, around his work and family commitments,” Mandy said.
The benefits are also entirely mutual because mum-of-four Mandy, from Toothill, has also felt her spirits lift no end since she started volunteering.
“I was really down in the dumps before. Irene has definitely stopped me being so depressed and given me a sense of purpose. We’re best of friends and have a fine time putting the world to rights,” she said.
“My 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son also visit. It’s good for them too because older people have so much life experience and different perspectives to share.”
Whereas last Christmas was a sombre affair, Irene has already been entering the festive spirit.
Mandy said: “Her tree is up and she has been to some lunches and music events. She’ll be seeing friends and her nephew, so life is really looking up. She has a reason to live again and being part of that is such a rewarding feeling.”
Loneliness is a growing problem nationally, with more than half of older people claiming the television is their main company according to a recent Age UK survey. Widows are especially prone to loneliness and there is also evidence linking it to poor health and depression. Swindon Circles has been running in Swindon for two years and now has more than 100 volunteers on its books, who support around 145 people aged between 70 and 101.
Cllr Mary Martin, Swindon Borough Council Cabinet Member for Communities, said: “Swindon Circles is a wonderful scheme, which demonstrates the huge potential of volunteering to not only enrich but also perhaps even save lives.
“Mandy has certainly been a lifeline for Irene and it’s wonderful to hear how her social life and general sense of wellbeing has blossomed over the past year since the sad loss of her husband. If you’re looking to make a real difference in 2017, I would encourage anyone to consider volunteering. There are lots of other people like Irene in genuine need – sometimes just a bit of time and a listening ear can go such a long way.
“I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all our volunteers and that we look forward to hearing from others who would like to join them. Your contribution is invaluable.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about volunteering with the scheme, go online at www.swindoncircles.org.uk or call (01793) 465401.