By David Tickner

01 Sep 2015

The Civil Service Retirement Fellowship’s befriending schemes have struck a chord with many officials who are lending a hand to help combat isolation in later life. CSRF deputy chief executive David Tickner explains the thinking behind the scheme

Almost half of those aged 75 and above in the UK live alone. Five million older people consider the television to be their main form of company. At least a quarter of a million older people are likely to spend Christmas on their own. These are just a few facts about loneliness in later life – and with an ageing population it’s likely that these numbers will only go up.

For us as a charity to explore how we might help those of our beneficiaries – all retired civil servants, partners and dependents – who are experiencing loneliness or social isolation was an obvious response to this national issue: helping retired civil servants enjoy a more fulfilling retirement through friendship and support is at the heart of what we do. That’s why in 2013, with support from the Civil Service Insurance Society Charity Fund, we launched the National Visitors Network – a scheme which offers friendship and companionship to beneficiaries via “home friendship visits” from trained volunteers. 

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The majority of our visitors are retired civil servants themselves, and as part of the volunteer training they attend a one-day seminar that offers useful advice on how to carry out a first visit. But the rewards associated with this volunteering programme are increasingly being picked up by serving officials too, thanks to a proactive profile-raising strategy spearheaded by the CSRF’s head of departmental liaison, Russell Brown. Below are just a few examples of our work in action.

Making a difference
Grace is a 93-year-old retired civil servant living in London, and was registered on the scheme by her niece last year. She is regularly visited by Alex, one of our youngest visitors. Alex is a civil servant on the Fast Stream programme, who joined the CSRF after reading about our work on his departmental intranet. Although Grace has carers visiting four times a day to assist with her personal care, and also has visits from her family, her one-to-one with Alex provides her with a different perspective. 

For Grace’s niece, Kay, the National Visitors Network provides a vital service. “There are so many elderly people who don’t have any visitors at all, or, indeed, any family. They can feel very isolated,” she says. Grace became housebound last year and, even with lots of people coming in and out, she can still feel lonely – so the visits are very special to her. 

Alex is not the only younger civil servant to see the benefits of supporting the CSRF’s befriending schemes. More and more, these opportunities to volunteer are striking a chord with younger civil servants as they look to give something back to older generations who have helped to shape our country. They also provide the opportunity for civil servants to use the volunteering days offered by the government to develop skills beyond those gained in the workplace, and many are also volunteering to be part of our charity’s new Departmental Ambassador Network to help raise awareness of our work across government. 

Home Friends: Sarah & Joyce
Sarah works at the Ministry of Defence and is on the Generalist Fast Stream. She volunteered to become one of our visitors and, after a training seminar in London, was matched up with 85-year-old former civil servant Joyce, whom she has now been visiting for over six months. Joyce had quite the career in government: she used to work in the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury and was also in the Land Army in World War Two. She has lots of stories that she has shared with Sarah and very much enjoys the companionship offered by the National Visitors Network. The positive impact provided by Sarah’s friendship visits and the quality time the two spend together has also helped Joyce’s recovery from a stroke. 

Phone Friends: Becky & Marjory
As well as the National Visitors Network, many civil servants are choosing to take part in our Phone Buddy scheme, which offers a listening ear through a regular call. Becky works at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the HR Fast Stream, and has been a Phone Buddy since the beginning of the year. Becky was matched up with Marjory, who she rings once a month, and who started working in the Ministry of Health in 1939. Marjory subsequently worked in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance before retiring in 1983.

They both enjoy sharing their stories, and relish the opportunity to talk to someone whom they may not have come across otherwise. Marjory says she loves being able to “speak to a younger person and compare the differences between Becky’s working life now, and how my life as a civil servant was.” And Becky says the convenience of the Phone Buddy scheme also appeals: “I’ve called my buddy from the office, my sofa and even from the Portsmouth Docks when I was there on holiday – it’s really easy to fit in with day-to-day life.”

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