The High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire has praised 30 teenagers from Rushcliffe School who give companionship to care home residents and continue to visit even after an elderly friend dies.
Sixth-formers from the Boundary Road school visit residents at Leawood Manor in West Bridgford – where they spend an hour or so each week chatting to them, exchanging news and encouraging them to share their memories. Many of the residents have dementia but the young people are taught to see the person and not the disease, but also how to cope with its effects.
The ‘YOPEY Befriender’ programme is run by the charity YOPEY, which stands for Young People of the Year. YOPEY runs a growing number of YOPEY Befriender schemes up and down the country of which the Rushcliffe-Leawood Manor scheme is one of the most popular and oldest, having started three years ago.
High Sheriff, Col. David Sneath, paid a special visit to the Hilton Crescent home to meet some of the Rushcliffe YOPEY Befrienders along with their elderly companions and to congratulate them on their volunteering.
“It’s wonderful that this charity is bringing the generations together and encouraging us to see young people being caring in this way, because they represent our future,” he said.
The high tea was also attended by YOPEY founder Tony Gearing who said: “I started YOPEY Befriender to tackle loneliness among the old but soon realised dementia was as major a problem. Through YOPEY Befriender young people are learning to tackle two problems that can only get bigger as families grow further apart and each generation lives longer than the last.
“Today’s teenagers are predicted to live into their 80s or 90s. I have heard figures that people past the age of 80 have a one in three chance of developing dementia. I believe the figure is closer to one in six, but still it means a lot more people in the future with dementia. And we already have about a million in this country.”
During the visit the befrienders and their companions had tea and cake with Col Sneath, the residents, care home staff and Tony.
The high sheriff handed out awards for the number of hours they had spent on the visits.
Seventeen-year-old Jack Dewick, who is the Rushcliffe YOPEY Befrienders current leader, having notched up nearly 30 hours of visits, said: “If I have spare time this is what I do with it.” He had two special friends at the care home and continued to visit after one of them died. “I was absolutely devastated when Harry died. I thought about not coming anymore but decided Brian still needs me.”
Sixteen-year-old Lola Smith is friend to 104-year-old Jeanie Richardson. Lola said: “Her husband was an engineer and also an artist. Her room is full of her paintings. She also has a picture of the Queen although Jeanie is unsure why.
“But the thing we discuss most is her wallpaper. I don’t mind. She is always so pleased to see me, always says how beautiful I am, and gives me a big hug. If discussing her wall paper makes her happy I want to make her happy and she deserves to be happy.”
Lola, who wants to be a dentist, added: “Dementia affects so many families and this scheme has helped me to give something back to the community. Jeanie and I talk about clothes and look through her clothes magazines together. I love being able to put a smile on her face.”
Seventeen-year-old Liz Hallam became involved in the scheme just before Christmas and soon afterwards she had to come to terms with her elderly companion dying. She said: “I knew it could happen but it was shock. I was committed to the scheme so I wanted to come back. “
Liz has forged new friendships with residents Joan and Eunice, and they and others have been giving her boyfriend advice. She got advice from a ‘panel’ of female residents about a potential boyfriend. “I wanted to know whether I should go for it or stay away. Some were saying I should go for it but I went with those who said I should stay away.”
Visiting the care home has taught Liz that typical teenage problems do not matter. “I like coming to the care home and talking about life. Our conversations are really interesting and make my problems seem less serious. I always feel really good afterwards.
“When we go back to school and sixth-formers are complaining about something that is nothing important it gives me a sense of perspective.”
Sixteen-year-old Sofia Jones said: “I still have all my grandparents but they live far away. Some people at the care home are by themselves. I don’t want them to be lonely so I just drop by and ask ‘do you fancy a chat’. I also learn so much. Their lives were so different to us growing up now.”
Another 16-year-old Sofia Shah, who wants to study medicine, said: “Before I came to the care home I didn’t know much about dementia. I didn’t realise there are so many different types and that they all affect people differently. I have a much better understanding now.”
As well as bridging the generation gap, the YOPEY Befriender scheme can also heal divisions between races. Zara Sheikh, who is a 16-year-old muslim of Pakistani heritage, faced some low-level racism at first. “I met one man who assumed I came from a poor part of Nottingham and had immigrated to the UK recently. I explained my background – I am British, as are my parents – and since then we have got on fine.”
One of YOPEY’s main aims is to change the image of young people and break down barriers between young and old. The scheme between Rushcliffe and Leawood is one of its most successful YOPEY Befriender projects with 50 of the 150 Year 12s offering to take part in the scheme and 30 being chosen to do the befriending, following 30 in each of its previous two years.
Assistant Head of Rushcliffe, Shrutee Desai, said: “YOPEY Befriender fits perfectly with our school ethos, which is all about taking the holistic view and developing the whole child. Not only has it increased the students’ understanding of how to do support work, it’s also developed their confidence and offered insight into possible career pathways such as medicine, nursing or social work.”
Relatives of the Leawood Manor residents were also full of praise for the befrienders. Pauline Mackintosh, whose mother Heather Atkinson has been visited by the Rushcliffe students, said: “It helps my mum to have a better day. There’s a buzz about being around young people. Often the elderly person doesn’t feel old in their head. Before the dementia my mum was always doing things. She was president of the Women’s Institute and a chauffeur for the Wrens. She was a mixer so it’s fitting she should still have people to see and things to do.”
Leawood Manor’s manager Jeremy Dignum said: “Some students were a little nervous to start with but once they were settled they were fine. They were enthusiastic and very friendly with the residents.
“The residents look forward to the YOPEY Befrienders visiting. This is a two-way street – a partnership that benefits both sides.”
Leawood Manor is one of about 70 care homes owned by the Runwood Group.
Chief Executive Gordon Sanders said: “We think the YOPEY Befriender scheme is a fantastic initiative. It is bringing a large number of young people into our homes and putting a smile on the faces of our residents.”
Managing Director Logan Logeswaran added: “We are delighted to have the opportunity of welcoming the young students into our care homes and we believe they will really benefit and enjoy the experience of talking and working with care staff and also interacting with the elderly residents.