Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Powys Befrienders - more than a cuppa and a chat

My colleague Rachael Beech has been working for the past 3½ years as the Powys Befrienders’ Project Co-ordinator at Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations. Powys Befrienders is a lottery funded project set up to improve the independence of people aged over 50.

We caught up with Rachael at her PAVO base at Ddole Road in Llandrindod Wells to find out more about the project.

What was the original idea behind the Befrienders Project?

Very simply to support people over the age of 50 to engage back into the community; to increase their independence and confidence, and stay in their own homes as long as possible. That includes people who are experiencing mental distress, bereavement or social inclusion – it could be anyone. The project runs across the whole of Powys. People are matched with volunteers for a period of 12 months with a view to them becoming more independent ultimately.

Who can ask for a befriender?

Basically anyone who is lonely and isolated and needs help to take that first step. The befriender supports that person to reach their goals, so although a cuppa and a chat are vitally important they need to identify that they need support in particular areas of their lives to increase their independence. People can self-refer or be referred by family, statutory or voluntary organisations.

People assume loneliness and isolation are the same and their definition can be very different to the reality of the situation. You can be completely isolated and in a housing estate surrounded by a thousand people, not necessarily out in the sticks. Being lonely is down to how people cope with day to day life. Someone with a carer twice a day or a member of a club could still feel lonely because they are not having meaningful interaction. That can cause a huge amount of loneliness, especially if they are not being listened to.

Tell us about the staff and volunteers working on the project and their different roles

I manage the project across the county working with 3 outreach officers and 2 delivery partners. We promote the project, identify clients and volunteers, and then match them. This includes setting up volunteer training, support and supervision. The outreach workers also make sure that both parties understand the principles and boundaries of the project. The client will understand that they have choice and control over the goals that are identified. Staff may also identify other client needs that can be met by other statutory or voluntary organisations. Even if clients come to us who don’t meet the project criteria we will still try and point them in the right direction.

We look at the skill set and interests of a volunteer when matching them with a client although it’s not always possible to get the ideal match because of the geographical nature of Powys. Then the volunteer will go in once a week for 2 – 3 hours to support the client with their goals.

How can your project volunteers support people to strengthen their social networks?

People who have lost confidence and independence find it very difficult to take that first step to interact with other people, to start a conversation, even to walk into a room. But if they have someone there to help it makes all the difference.

We have some severely mentally distressed clients who have been ostracised in their community because of certain character traits. They feel people don’t understand them and they feel completely and utterly alone. We go in, their goals are no different to other peoples, and we help them reintegrate.

What kind of goals are set?

Using the outcome star we look at particular areas of people’s lives. The client’s goal could be learning to walk again after a hip replacement operation. Or to access shopping and social activities. Or advocacy. Someone who is not able to leave their house may want to access the internet. People get their lives back. Ultimately some may go from being clients to being volunteers, which really helps with their confidence.

Some clients have terminal illnesses – the project aims to increase independence but also wellbeing. If befriending helps a person do things in their last year of life that they have previously been unable to do it meets the criteria.

I believe the staff provide support to people with severe mental distress?

Yes, often there is no other support – not a befriending, mentoring style of support. People can become aggravated, suspicious and wary of others and it is more difficult to support them back into the community. So, either we provided support, or people might spiral into a pit of despair. In some areas of the county we are now setting up groups to help support people.

We also have two delivery partners to help us in this area – Crickhowell Volunteer Bureau (Crickhowell & District only) and Healthy Friendships (which covers North Brecknock specifically for clients with mental health needs).

What do the volunteers in particular bring to the project?

They bring lived experience, flexibility, skills and knowledge… they increase the capacity of the team. In some cases they bring long-term friendship. Some volunteers and clients have developed a relationship that does continue after the more formal arrangement has come to an end.

Volunteers currently range in age from 45 – 89, but can anyone over the age of 18 can volunteer.

If the Befrienders project did not exist, what would happen to people who contact you in need of support?

If you have lost your independence and self-esteem you are at rock bottom. If you fall ill you don’t want to pick up the phone. You have no friends, you can’t ring family 200 miles away, so you let it continue and then you might end up hospitalised. If you don’t have good mental health it reflects on physical health and vice versa.

How does the work of Befrienders fit in with that of other voluntary sector groups

We work in partnership with Mind, Disability Powys, the British Red Cross, and Age Cymru, plus all organisations who have clients of 50 or over.

Tell us some of the hardest things about working on this project

Seeing some of our clients and where they are now and thinking how easy it would have been to prevent that with a kindly neighbour or family intervention.

And sourcing volunteers. So many organisations are looking for volunteers – we don’t get many youngsters, and the majority we get have been volunteering their whole lives. We’ve lost that generation who volunteer without even thinking.

Now tell us some of the nice things about working on the project

We know we can make a difference, even if it’s absolutely tiny. We are part of a much bigger chain that is health and social care but we can help people. People who had not been out of the house for 12 months and were completely reliant on others for shopping have, a year down the line, helped set up our first independent group. That’s brilliant.

Helping people gain more skills and confidence through volunteering is really good. When we talk about beneficiaries – our clients and volunteers are all beneficiaries.

Because of the way we have worked we have been able to demonstrate categorically that Powys Befrienders has a measured effect which means we have evidence to try and make this a long-term project.

What is the most valuable thing you have learnt since starting your role?

Looking at this project as a whole has made me think this type of care must be sustainable – we’ve got to help the community to help the community.

What do you like to do in your own time when you’re not working for PAVO? 

We’re 18 years into a building project, we bought a 9 foot by 9 foot stone chimney and have done all the work ourselves but we are nearly at the end! I also grow a lot of vegetables, I’ve created a whole new garden, I enjoy riding my horse, taking the dogs on long walks and popping down to Pembrokeshire where we have a caravan and swimming in the sea from February to November.

Many thanks to Rachael for telling us about Powys Befrienders. You can contact her by emailing rachael.beech@pavo.ork.uk or ringing 01597 822191.

UPDATE October 2015: Powys Befrienders is pleased to announce that it is the first befriending service in Wales to be awarded the Befriending Quality Mark. Read more here.

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