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Touching lives: Safeguarding against loneliness with Wimbledon Guild

We find out about the fantastic work local charity, Wimbledon Guild, is doing to fight loneliness in the borough

As the nights draw in, the very real problem of social isolation and loneliness among the elderly creeps into the public psyche, and come Christmas our thoughts turn to those who may not be surrounded by loved ones over the holiday period. Tackling this problem isn’t just a seasonal issue though, and there to help provide people with help and support across the seasons is local charity, Wimbledon Guild.

With core aims to reduce social isolation and keep the elderly community active and strong, the charity provides help and support in the borough with classes and activities that prove you’re never too old to try something new, plus on-hand help from around 250 friendly volunteers. “Our focus in loneliness stems from the fact that it is such a significant problem with so many people affected,” says Wendy Pridmore, chief executive at the Wimbledon Guild. “I’m sure you’ve heard the statistics, but over the age of 65, being lonely is as bad for your health as smoking 15 a day. We’re in the right place to do something about it.” The epidemic is certainly a serious problem and in Merton alone, 33% of people aged over 65 live on their own – a number that is really shooting up, so much so that in about five years’ time it will be almost 50% of people.

In terms of methods to help, Wimbledon Guild offers around 120 different activities each month with exercise classes for all abilities, dance classes, IT classes for people to get to grips with mobiles and tablets, and popular social spaces including a café where people of all ages are welcomed with open arms. Wimbledon Guild also puts on more programmes tailored to those with specific needs: “Let’s say someone who has had a hip replacement and along the journey has lost their confidence. We’ll be here to help them build confidence with things like outings and using public transport.” The programme also offers a fantastically curated befriending scheme whereby people are carefully matched with volunteers, igniting very real friendships based on strong common interests. “We really put a lot of emphasis on making good matches, we don’t just say, oh look this person lives three doors up from you – we’re after real friendships that benefits both parties. We’ve got 50 befriending volunteers of all ages and the key theme is that everyone benefits.”

Loneliness is an emotion that does not discriminate, but Wendy has noticed that around 30% of people that use the services are older men who may not feel comfortable opening up about feelings of isolation. “We are looking for new activities and things that might appeal to men and ways to reach out. There really is something for everyone whatever your interests are, be it football, military history – if we can’t directly help we will know people who can and I know taking that first step is really difficult, but we really are a welcoming bunch here, so if you can pluck up the courage to step over the threshold, everything will be fine!”

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The topic of men and their relationship with mental health has been brought to the fore in recent years, and people are far more aware of the damage that societal constructs and expectations of masculinity can have men’s ability to voice problems, but Wendy has a positive outlook on the shifting tide of conversation. “I think it is changing – we’re much more open about this kind of thing. People acknowledge that it’s very unusual to be an adult and have got through your entire life without a problem coming your way, but perhaps past generations were brought up differently and were brought up to think of themselves as ‘copers’. It takes a few brave people to start putting their heads above the parapet and once that starts to happen it all becomes much easier but we don’t judge at all here we’ve got a very inclusive approach, whatever somebody’s story.”

With a wealth of elderly attendees at the centre, there also comes a plethora of fascinating life stories from across the generations. Wendy tells me of one lady in particular who had a complicated life and came along to the centre aged 70. Her husband had died and was suffering from depression and anxiety. “We found out that one of the reasons why she felt lonely and lacking confidence was because of her difficult upbringing. She never went to school and she’d never learnt to read. One of our volunteers here is an actor who helped her learn to read. It was such an optimistic story that proves that you can still learn new things in later life and there are still lots of opportunities and maybe things you’ve missed along the way, but it’s never too late.”

“Perhaps past generations were brought up differently and were brought up to think of themselves as ‘copers’. It takes a few brave people to start putting their heads above the parapet and once that starts to happen it all becomes much easier”

Pushing awareness of these fantastic facilities doesn’t come without the challenge, though, and Wendy is aware that it’s hard to reach those in need. “We’re stepping up what we do, running banners on buses and in local resident association journals but it’s an unending task. Word of mouth is how most people come to us so we’re overwhelmingly reliant on that.” So what can we all do to help this winter as the long nights draw in? “There are lots of opportunities for volunteering and that doesn’t have to be a massive commitment. If somebody is interested in befriending – a weekly visit in the evening, or a fundraising event where they can just give a few hours once a year – it all adds up. We get a lot of support with the likes of the Windmilers who are running a quarter marathon for us, plus events like Waggy Walk. There are so many opportunities to get involved on our website, with opportunities as big or as small as you want to make it.”

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