Using Reciprocity to Combat Loneliness

1 September 2018 | Magazine Articles

Using Reciprocity to Combat Loneliness

I’ve been reading about a wonderful organisation in the UK called “GoodGym”. Its focus is to provide opportunities for people to connect with older folk who are lonely or have simple one-off tasks that need to be done in their homes. In brief, people run, (yes run!), to an older person’s home and then spend twenty minutes visiting with them, before they run home again. People also do “missions” by meeting other runners at an older person’s home and carry out tasks that need to be done – things like potting up plants, trimming trees and helping move furniture.

I love the creativity of this form of volunteering because it brings people together who might not normally meet up, combines leisure with philanthropic activity and is based on the premise of harnessing energy for social good. In 2014 the New Zealand General Social Survey found that 73 percent of 65-74 year olds reported feeling lonely in the last four weeks. Loneliness and social isolation are words we are hearing more about – Doug Wilson, in his book “Aging for Beginners”, has identified socialisation as the third most important thing that people can do to live long and healthy lives. In a time when we have the ability to connect so easily with others, it seems sad that there are individuals in our communities who feel they are not getting as much social contact as they would like with family, friends and their community.

Volunteering seems such an easy answer to loneliness. Through many years of working with volunteers I’ve seen friendships and support networks grow and bring joy, warmth and richness into people’s lives. For some, their volunteer role has become the single most important thing in their week – for others it has offered a reason to leave the house and pursue something they love to do or have always wanted to do.

Looking at the roles that are listed with Volunteering Waikato I find it really exciting that someone can drive a train, foster cuddly animals, usher at wonderful shows (and then watch them!), guide people through museums, deliver meals to people in their homes, help people dress up in costumes, befriend someone else who is lonely………there really is something for everyone and who wouldn’t want to do some of these things! But more importantly volunteering brings structure to someone’s week, gives an opportunity to connect with others, keeps people active and learning, and generally provides a space that can be filled with fun!

We know current research is showing that volunteering can cause good mental health but kindness really is contagious and along with kindness comes feelings of self-worth – that warm and fuzzy feeling is an actual physical response to the chemical reaction you get from doing something good. Interestingly a recent Australian study found that people identified specific skill growth through volunteering and for the 65 years plus age group the skill developments rated most highly were patience, friendliness, teamwork, confidence, flexibility, and computer/technical skills.

There is no doubt that volunteering is changing but also staying the same and we need to innovate to find opportunities for everyone to engage and therefore benefit. Another initiative I love the sound of is “Casserole Club” which is based on the premise of people cooking an extra portion of food every once in a while and sharing it with an older neighbour. The concept hopes to “knit the community together” by encouraging weekly chats and local friendships. Each cook is thoroughly vetted and each recipient opts in to receive a meal from someone close by in their local community.

I’m not sure if the Good Gym or Casserole Club model is right for every community but what I do know is that there are lots of people who would love to share their skills, time and resources to help someone’s day be a bit better. The reciprocity of volunteering creates a dynamic where everyone’s a winner – where every person gets the opportunity to live the best life they can live.

Chris Atkinson - Regional Co-ordinator, for Seasons Magazine