Hundreds of lonely older people in Cornwall will be helped to become more connected to their communities, thanks to a grant of almost £78,000 from Cornwall Freemasons to Royal Voluntary Service
The grant will fund a specially-designed programme which will provide over 200 older people in the area with new opportunities to build social connections and relationships. It will also allow the charity to give more vulnerable older people a link to the community through a Community Companions volunteer who will visit them at home, supporting them with practical help and getting out and about.
Loneliness and social isolation can affect everyone, but older people are particularly vulnerable after the loss of friends and family or reduced mobility. A report by Age UK reported that there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK, and half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. Reports also suggest that loneliness is as bad for a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and those who feel lonely are also more likely to suffer from ill health.
Surveys conducted by Royal Voluntary Service amongst older people in Cornwall found that just over three quarters (77 per cent) are experiencing loneliness and two thirds (66 per cent) feel they need more help with getting to GP appointments or social activities.
The grant from Cornwall Freemasons comes through the Masonic Charitable Foundation, which is funded by Freemasons, their families and friends, from across England and Wales.
Stephen Pearn, Provincial Grand Master for Cornwall Freemasons, said: 'I’m very pleased we’ve been able to help Royal Voluntary Service with their excellent programme of support for older people.
'Loneliness and social isolation is a real problem in our society, having a serious impact on physical and mental health and quality of life. Ending the social isolation of older people is a major priority for both the Royal Voluntary Service and Freemasons.'
Lisa Knight, Operations Manager for Royal Voluntary Service, said: 'We’re very grateful to Cornwall Freemasons for their generous grant, which will help us build on our existing work supporting older people in Cornwall, organise monthly social activities and recruit volunteers toprovide companionship and practical support to older people in their homes.'
Mike Pritchard, Provincial Grand Charity Steward of Cornwall Freemasons, added: 'Being involved and working with so many different charities within our local communities here in Cornwall, has been an absolute pleasure for me. This latest grant will be a significant boost for the Royal Voluntary Service, here in Cornwall. This will enable them to reach more individuals normally confined to their homes and socially isolated.'
Cheshire Freemasons Keith Howbrigg and Harry Wright had great pleasure in visiting Men in Sheds in the village of Hartford to present a donation for £580
This donation will enable the project, which is run by Age UK Cheshire, to add to their Air Filtration system, with the purchase of two new high volume units.
The sheds are places where men over the age of 50 can come together to learn and share their skills and make new friends.
They always guarantee a warm welcome within the shed community, with activities including wood working and turning, pen making, bespoke commissions and community projects.
The Masonic Charitable Foundation has developed specialist knowledge and expertise in order to give more targeted support to beneficiaries, as Chief Executive David Innes explains
When HRH The Duke of Kent, Grand President of the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), visited our offices at Freemasons’ Hall earlier this year, I was delighted to introduce him to our team and explain what we have achieved so far as a charity.
With around 5,000 members of the masonic community and hundreds of local and national charities supported each year since our launch, I am confident that the MCF has become the type of organisation that we hoped to create, supporting people from all walks of life with a wide range of needs.
GETTING SMARTER ABOUT WHAT WE DO
One of the benefits of forming the MCF has been the opportunity to develop specialist knowledge and expertise, rather than spreading our resources across many areas and limiting our impact.
With this in mind, we have made an informed decision to focus our energies and resources more intelligently and become smarter at what we do. From now on, our Charity Grants programme – historically referred to as ‘non-masonic giving’ – will target funding where it is most needed. Over the next five years, our grants will focus on two groups that we know the masonic community is keen to support: the young and the old.
Some of our grants will fund charitable projects that create the best start in life for disadvantaged children. Others will go to charities that help to reduce isolation in later life and support older people to actively participate in society.
FOR THOSE WHO NEED IT MOST
Research has shown that the early years of a child’s life are crucially important to their health, well-being and success as an adult, while our growing and ageing population means that the number of older, potentially lonely people is increasing.
By focussing our funding within these overstretched and underfunded areas, our new grants programmes will, over time, help to address these issues in your communities across all Provinces.
Our support for hospices has also been updated to focus on grants for innovative and in-demand projects that target specific changes in the palliative care sector. This year, grants have focussed on bereavement care services.
All of our programmes will involve partnerships with some of the country’s leading charities, including Age UK and Hospice UK. These organisations have a wealth of expert knowledge in their respective fields that we can draw upon to ensure we reach the parts of society where people need us the most.
While we strive to improve the way that we tackle society’s big issues, the well-being of Freemasons and their families remains paramount. We’ve been working hard to make sure the masonic community knows who we are and what we do, and recent figures suggest that the message is working. We are giving more, to more people: the number of grants awarded is up by 9 per cent and the amount we spend to support Freemasons and their families has increased by 19 per cent.
None of this would be possible without the generosity of Freemasons, and their family and friends. Thank you for your support.
‘We have made an informed decision to focus our energies and resources more intelligently’
Whether it’s paying bills or buying Christmas presents, we are increasingly being driven online to conduct sometimes complex transactions. Peter Watts finds out how masonic funding in Leicestershire is helping to close the digital divide for an older generation
Lindsay Prince volunteers as a Digital Champion, delivering technology support and advice for elderly people, and she never knows what to expect. It may be someone in their eighties wanting to log on to an online seminar, or someone in their sixties struggling to send their first text message.
‘Some can’t even use keyboards, but that’s what we’re there for,’ says Prince, who volunteers for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland. ‘I feel strongly that anybody who isn’t online is disenfranchised from society. If they don’t engage with IT they are in danger of missing out. They can’t run a bank account, get tickets to an event or vote on Strictly. People are terrified by it, but once they take the first step they find they can get over that hump.’
It’s this belief in the importance of digital accessibility for social inclusion that has prompted the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to provide £65,000 for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, which has been running the project in the region since 2014. The charity holds drop-in sessions at care homes, Age UK facilities, shops and town centres where anybody can attend and receive support for their tablet, laptop or smartphone. The funding will allow the project to run for another two years, employ an administrator and coordinator, and train volunteers. Troy Young, assistant director of Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, says they hope to reach 2,000 people in that period.
THE DIGITAL LEAP
One beneficiary of the sessions has been Aileen, 86, who is now able to use her tablet to access a range of services. ‘It’s taken me months to believe that I can’t damage the tablet, so the digital sessions have been as much about confidence using the tablet as they have been about learning what I can achieve by using it,’ she says. ‘YouTube is marvellous because I can watch and enjoy seminars on a range of topics.’
Aileen’s story is one that the MCF and Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland hope will be repeated over the next two years. ‘What we like about this project is that it tackles social isolation from two angles,’ explains David Innes, Chief Executive of the MCF. ‘One is that in this age, where an increasing amount of our day-to-day activity takes place on the internet, there’s a large number of elderly people who struggle with the technology. They can’t manage money, access bus timetables or make GP appointments. It’s a real challenge and narrows their horizons even more.’
The other benefit is that in the process of gaining technology training, participants will have social interaction with the people teaching them. ‘The fact they are taking part in an activity will give them something to look forward to,’ Innes says.
Prince says that several of her regular attendees make a point of coming to sessions in part because of this social aspect. Many Digital Champions are young, and Prince – who is 70 and began volunteering after retiring from further education – admits sometimes she gets mistaken as a participant rather than a volunteer. But she believes that her age gives comfort to attendees, who see that age doesn’t have to be a barrier to new technology.
Having trained as a Digital Champion, Prince thinks it’s vital to go at the right pace and avoid scaring attendees with technical language. ‘It’s important to understand how different people learn,’ she says. ‘You need to realise you are working at somebody else’s level. It depends on the person, their attitude and what they did in their career beforehand. If you’ve never worked with machines, it can be difficult. You start by finding out what they want to use it for and you have to be careful you don’t overwhelm them.’
It’s also important that sessions are enjoyable, and Age UK’s Young says that feedback has been positive. The project has discovered hundreds of older people who were keen to go online but couldn’t find anybody providing the advice they required. ‘They were often worried they’d be made to feel stupid, and some of them have had negative experiences that made them feel out of their depth, but these are relaxed sessions that can be fun,’ he says.
Older people came to Young explaining that they had signed up for evening courses but were being taught about how to use spreadsheets or make presentations. ‘They weren’t interested in learning in such a structured way – they wanted advice and guidance about all the wonderful new technology. We started rolling out engagement sessions so people could have a play with the equipment. People were also coming to us very confused about the range of what was in the market, and they wanted impartial advice. A lot of it is about demystifying and making sure that older people don’t find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.’
Young is intrigued by the potential of using digital technology to provide reminiscence therapy for people with dementia. He hopes that Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland will soon be able to find volunteers who have experience both with technology and dementia care. ‘I want to take this project to older people who might not use the technology but can still benefit from it,’ he says. ‘There’s been some very interesting stuff around virtual reality and dementia recently, where they use virtual reality to take people back to times they might remember and that have a calming, therapeutic effect.’
As well as allowing the MCF to tackle social exclusion, the location of the project in the East Midlands allows the MCF to ensure masonic funds are evenly distributed.
‘We try to balance our grants, just as the masonic community is spread around the country,’ says Innes, who was previously Chief Executive at the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) and has experience of supporting elderly people.
‘I’ve seen for myself at the RMBI the difference that technology can make,’ he says. ‘Families are far more dispersed than they used to be, and with opportunities such as social media and Skype, you can connect to a family member anywhere in the world. In our masonic care homes, we provide connectivity to all residents, which has enabled older people to stay more in touch with relatives.’
Young is looking forward to continuing his work with Digital Champions like Prince, thanks to the MCF. ‘We were so pleased to get this funding because the grant will keep it going for another two years,’ he says. ‘And that’s important because the technology isn’t going away – we have plenty of demand. We want to make our sessions as inclusive as possible and ensure that all older people will benefit.’
Find out more about the work of Age UK in Leicester Shire & Rutland - click here.
Age UK will recruit at least 20 “Digital Champions” who will support and guide 2,000 older people to use communication tools like email, Skype and FaceTime, which younger people take for granted.
The Digital Champions project is aimed at helping these older people to access online information on everything from benefits to bus timetables. With many services becoming digital by default, older people who are not online face more hurdles in their daily lives to access both private and public sector services. There will also be an emphasis on online safety and protection from viruses and fraud.
The project is supporting older people across Leicestershire and Rutland, with a focus on people in rural areas. It aims to combat loneliness and isolation by helping these budding “silver surfers” to keep in touch with family and friends online.
Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland’s Digital Champions will be holding up to four sessions a week across Leicestershire and Rutland. They will be for around 15 people each and be held in community settings such as libraries, village halls and residential homes, whilst there will also be one-to one sessions available.
Tony Donovan, Executive Director at Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, said: 'We are very grateful to Leicestershire and Rutland Freemasons for their generous grant which will improve the quality of life for thousands of older people.
'More than four million older people nationally have never used the internet and we need to help them to benefit from all the advantages of a digital world that most of us take for granted.'
The grant comes through the Masonic Charitable Foundation and David Hagger, Provincial Grand Master of Leicestershire and Rutland Freemasons, said: 'We are very pleased to be able to support Age UK’s Digital Champions.
'As well as fighting loneliness and depression, getting older people online has great practical benefits. A household without internet access is on average £650 a year worse off.”
As part of the Tercentenary celebrations, Guildford Freemasons entertained over 70 elderly and underprivileged local people to high tea, with the assistance of Age UK Surrey, Contact the Elderly and the local Lions and Rotary Clubs
Held at the Guildford Masonic Centre on 20th August, entertainment was provided by the Surrey Fringe Barbershop Singers and magician George Kimber, whilst the event was also attended by the Guildford Deputy Mayor and Mayoress Cllr Mike and Mrs Jean Parsons.
The resident DJ
Whether it’s writing a book, having a go at volleyball or playing music at a local radio station, RMBI care home residents are discovering new skills in later life. Amy Lewin explores the activities on offer
There’s a new DJ at Tudno FM and he’s spinning some old tracks from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Ken George played trombone and saxophone in a band. Nowadays, he plays music at Llandudno’s community radio station, just across the road from his home, Queen Elizabeth Court.
‘Ken’s unbelievable,’ says Gary Carr, Activities Coordinator at the RMBI care home. ‘He’s 87, and so knowledgeable and enthusiastic.’ Gary does some drive-time DJ’ing himself, and one day suggested that the music enthusiast came along to see what they do at the station. And so DJ Ken was born. ‘Older people tend to get stereotyped. Here, we don’t assume that our residents can’t do something – we find out what they can do.’
The media may be awash with gloomy headlines about the problems facing the UK’s ageing population, but an increasing number of over-65s are still in employment, and many learn new skills every day.
‘Everything we do is geared to maximising people’s strengths, in all different areas, while giving residents the opportunity to try new things,’ says Debra Keeling, RMBI Deputy Director of Care Operations. ‘We need to remember that someone living in a care home has a huge amount to offer, and can still keep learning. So as far as possible we just continue with normal life, while developing self-esteem, supporting each other and creating a sense of community.’
Ken’s swing session isn’t his only appointment for the day. After lunch, he will be building with Lego and cardboard boxes, keeping his hands dexterous. More importantly, he will also be swapping stories with a group of fellow residents.
‘It’s all about reminiscence,’ says Gary. ‘I tend to tap into memories of things people did as a child, or when they were younger.’ It could be a creative activity that sparks conversation, or hearing an old song or taking a day trip. ‘That’s what we do here – we unlock memories.’
One of the most recent donations to Gary’s club, inspired by Age UK’s hugely successful Men in Sheds initiative, was an old Singer sewing machine. And it just so happens that he is a trained sewing machine mechanic, so he stripped it down and fixed it up like new. ‘You should have seen the looks on their faces when I opened the box and showed it to the group,’ he chuckles. ‘They were so excited, because they’d all had one once.’
At Cornwallis Court in Suffolk, the residents also have plenty of tales to share. When 26 uniformed RAF officers visited earlier this year, they found themselves staying well beyond teatime. ‘A lot of the residents fetched their medals from their rooms,’ says the home’s Activities Coordinator Alexander Winter. ‘They swapped stories with the officers for the whole evening.’
It’s not just the people actively taking part who benefit from these sessions. Some residents might have lost the ability to speak, yet sometimes simply being surrounded by other people communicating, laughing and using positive body language can have a huge, positive impact on their sense of wellbeing.
Leading by example
Later in the week, back in Llandudno, Ken has another activity in the diary. But this time, he will be leading it. ‘Ken loves to help out when I’m not around,’ says Gary. ‘On Saturdays, he runs “Music with Ken George” in the home’s Silver Jubilee Lounge. He’s made a lot of friends here.’
Like everything else going on at Queen Elizabeth Court, the music session is advertised in the home’s monthly Court Tales magazine, so residents can pop along if they like the sound of whatever’s going to be playing on the day.
Ken is not the only one sharing his skills and interests. In another home, a lady who had been a florist hosted a flower-arranging club to share her skills with other residents. ‘It boosted her self-esteem immeasurably,’ says Debra. ‘It was really important for her to show other people who she was. And everyone walking around the home commented on how lovely the displays looked.’
Carers and activities leaders work hard to arrange events and to encourage hobbies – whether carried out in a group or as an individual – that are relevant to each person living in their home, based primarily on their personal care plan.
‘We focus heavily on life history and get to know people really well – right from where residents were born to what subjects they did at school, what jobs they had and what their interests were,’ says Debra. ‘We mould all that information together and develop a plan that’s meaningful to them.’
‘Older people tend to get stereotyped. Here, we don’t assume that our residents can’t do something – we find out what they can do.’ Gary Carr, Activities Coordinator
The RMBI’s tailored approach to care helps its residents to maintain their independence, and to tot up plenty of personal achievements along the way. Among the 1,000-plus people living in RMBI homes in England and Wales, there is a 100-year-old playing the occasional game of volleyball, someone over 80 who has learned to play the piano and an autobiographer who has written a book of personal wartime experiences.
Not that it is always possible for all residents to achieve everything that they’d like to. One resident wanted to fly on Concorde which, short of time travel, was beyond the means of the care home.
So it was decided to look for the next best thing – going on a flight simulator.
‘We also used to have somebody who really loved horses, but was no longer able to ride,’ remembers Debra. ‘Yet she could still enjoy going to see the horses and stroking them, so we set up trips to a stable. You name it and we’ll try to arrange it, as much as we possibly can.’
Creating a community
At Cornwallis Court, basket weaving is a favourite activity. ‘It doesn’t always end up involving basket weaving, though,’ says Alexander, explaining that the session sometimes morphs into embroidery and crafting, depending on what the residents fancy. ‘Lots of the residents keep things like toiletries in the baskets they’ve made. Sometimes they make them for those residents who can’t, or they bake a cake for the less mobile, take it round and have a chat.’
Alexander thinks this community spirit is not only part and parcel of the activities programme but also a key feature in all RMBI care homes. ‘It’s a window of opportunity to socialise and make friends in their own time. It reawakens a social environment, which continues when there’s nothing going on. Even when there are no activities coordinators around, they will visit each other’s rooms, or bring some board games to the lounge to play together. That’s what I call a butterfly-effect moment.’
For many residents, living in an RMBI home is a sociable kind of independence. ‘After all,’ says Alexander, ‘everybody here has a degree in life.’
Recognised and valued
Whether you’re among those providing vital help or receiving it, caring will touch nearly everyone’s lives. Aileen Scoular finds that Freemasonry has been united in its support of carers for 25 years
Every day some 6,000 people become carers. Today there are around 6.5 million in the UK, and national membership charity Carers UK estimates that by 2037 more than nine million people will be in a caring role.
This means providing unstinting, unpaid support for a loved one, friend or neighbour who is older, disabled or seriously ill.
While some carers will have made a decision to provide care, for many the role will have presented itself gradually or unexpectedly, and they may struggle to balance caring with their own needs.
Of particular concern is the fact that the number of older carers is growing rapidly. ‘The Carers UK joint report with Age UK, Caring into Later Life, showed that there are now almost 1.3 million carers aged 65 and over in England and Wales – an increase of 35 per cent in 10 years,’ says Emily Holzhausen, director of policy, advice and information at Carers UK. ‘It was even more alarming to discover that the fastest-growing group of carers are those aged 85 and over.’ Around 87,000 octogenarians now care for a loved one, despite their own fragile health.
Young lives are affected, too. Carers Trust estimates that there are around 300,000 carers aged 16 to 24 in the UK, and some 13,000 of those are providing more than 50 hours of care a week, which makes it very difficult to work or go to college.
Thankfully for today’s carers, there is a network of dedicated caring charities. But the problem is that not everyone who provides care realises they are a carer, so it can be hard for such charities to reach those who most need their support. ‘People often have a picture of who a carer is and they find it hard to identify with that label,’ says Holzhausen. ‘Many carers simply don’t want to ask for help, often because they feel like it is their duty to care for their loved one.’
Help for those who help
Carers UK celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015 and is working with a network of volunteers and local community-based organisations – including masonic lodges – to help them understand how to reach, connect with and support carers in their community in the best way. However, they need funding to reach more carers with vital advice, information and support, which is why The Freemasons’ Grand Charity’s support of the caring sector is so important.
Over the past 25 years, the Grand Charity has donated more than £1 million to charities that specifically support carers, including a £250,000 donation to Carers UK back in 1990. Baroness Jill Pitkeathley OBE headed up Carers UK at the time and she described it as ‘one of the most significant events which took place on my watch as chief executive… allowing us to expand our branch network, increase our membership and expand our profile with the media. Carers everywhere owe the Grand Charity a debt of gratitude.’
‘Many Freemasons recognise the need for care, and for some it’s a topic that is becoming more relevant to their own lives,’ says Katrina Baker, Head of Non-Masonic Grants at the Grand Charity. ‘It is reported that many carers are already living on the breadline so any welfare cuts take their financial situation to a critical level. The masonic community and our Grants Committee are passionate about supporting the caring sector.’
The Grand Charity has made sizeable donations to caring organisations in recent years. Crossroads Care, a UK-wide network of carers’ centres, received £125,000 over three years, allowing it to develop more branches. Contact a Family also benefited from £125,000 over three years, enabling it to establish a new regional structure in the north of England. Home Farm Trust (Hft), a charity for people with learning disabilities, used a £60,000 donation to fund a Carer Support Service. A conference for The Princess Royal Trust for Carers (now merged with Crossroads Care to form the Carers Trust) was made possible with a £33,000 grant, allowing best practice to be shared across 118 independent care centres.
‘Unfortunately we receive far more applications for grants than we can support, and the number we receive is rising.’ Katrina Baker
The more you know…
Recently, the Grand Charity once again supported Carers UK with a £100,000 donation to help fund its national advice and information services, giving carers access to free guidance on the practicalities of caring, and information on their entitlements and rights. ‘It is a substantial donation for us, larger than most grants we give,’ explains Baker. ‘Unfortunately we receive far more applications for grants than we can support, and the number we receive is rising.’
Baker and her colleagues research the applications thoroughly, and present the Grand Charity Grants Committee with a shortlist from a broad spectrum of charitable sectors. ‘We always aim to be fair when selecting projects to support,’ she says. ‘It is also important to support causes that are of interest and relevance to the masonic community. We want them to be able to connect with the sectors and organisations we’re supporting.’
Not surprisingly, the charities that benefit from the Grand Charity’s donations are very grateful. ‘We hugely appreciate the support that has come from the Grand Charity over the past 25 years, and its current grant to help us develop our network of services,’ says Holzhausen. ‘We’re always keen to work with the masonic community, and we want them to know that our services are always there for them, too.’
Making life better
Margaret Dangoor, 75, regularly visited her mother in a Bath nursing home until her death aged 102, while also looking after her husband Eddie, who has Alzheimer’s, at home in Surrey. She explains how tough caring for loved ones can be
‘Sometimes people are so focused on the person they care for, they forget about their own well-being. Caring is a big role and it can be extremely daunting; many carers also feel very guilty. It’s not all negative, though – there can be a sense of community if you engage with the care environment. I’m a Volunteer Ambassador for Carers UK because I want to spread the word and reach those who might be caring alone.
‘For me, it’s poignant to see the Grand Charity supporting carers’ charities. My father was a member of Raymond Thrupp Lodge in Middlesex, and Lodge of Honour in Bath when he lived there. When my father was very ill during the last months of his life, the lodge in Bath was very helpful to my mother. She had early Alzheimer’s disease, and a member of the lodge took her to visit my father every day for several weeks.
‘She had no concept of what a commitment he was making and our family, who were all living at a distance, were extremely grateful.’
The personal impact
Being a carer affects people’s lives in many ways – not all of them predictable – as research from Carers UK reveals
According to a report by Carers UK, two million people have given up work to care. More than a third of carers have also used up their holiday leave to provide care.
Caring can profoundly change the terms of a relationship. Having nursed each other through cancer on separate occasions, BBC Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker and his wife Tiggy are now patrons of the Carers UK 50th Anniversary appeal. ‘Caring pushed our relationship to the brink,’ he says. ‘It has left us with a deep understanding of how difficult and challenging caring for someone can be.’
Sometimes, family bonds can break down too. ‘At first, family can be very supportive but as time passes, that support can drop off,’ says Emily Holzhausen of Carers UK. Around 60 per cent of carers worry about the impact their caring role will have on their other relationships.
Caring has had a negative effect on the health of some 82 per cent of carers, according to Carers UK, and 41 per cent have experienced an injury or their physical health has suffered as a result of caring. Looking ahead, more than three quarters of all carers are concerned about the impact of caring on their own health in the next 12 months.
Feeling isolated is common among carers. Many don’t want to ask for help, and others are too exhausted – or cannot afford – to do anything except provide round-the-clock care. Eight in 10 carers say they have experienced loneliness and isolation as a result of their caring role, and over half have lost touch with friends or family.
Caring is costly and more than a third of all carers do not realise what benefits they are entitled to. Around 48 per cent cannot make ends meet, and 26 per cent have had to borrow money from friends or family to survive.
‘The personal impact’ statistics from Carers UK reports: State of Caring (2015); Alone and Caring (2015); Caring and Isolation in the Workplace (Carers UK and Employers for Carers, 2015)
With 2.9 million older people feeling they have no one to turn to for help and support, Aileen Scoular meets Dame Esther Rantzen DBE and Provincial Grand Almoner Ernie Greenhalgh to find out how Freemasons are making a difference in West Lancashire
No one wants to feel alone. But for the 11 million people in the UK aged 65 and over, loneliness and isolation are all too familiar. A survey by Age UK has revealed that one in four older people feel that they have no one to go to for help and support.
Contact the Elderly, another UK charity that aims to lessen the effects of isolation, echoes these views: other than visits from a carer, around 70 per cent of the elderly people who use its service receive visits just once a week or less.
Yet loneliness and isolation can be avoided.
A chat on the phone, a cup of tea or a shared joke with a neighbour takes just minutes, but the positive effects of human interaction last long after the conversation ends. The reassuring news is that there are organisations out there making that happen, one of which is the Freemasons.
In West Lancashire, Provincial Grand Almoner Ernie Greenhalgh has spent his first two years in the job making positive changes that will allow his lodge almoners and care officers to spend more time on active care and less time on paperwork. And Ernie has found an equally compassionate ally in Dame Esther Rantzen DBE – founder of ChildLine in 1986 and, more recently, The Silver Line, a telephone helpline for older people.
Invited by the Province of West Lancashire, Dame Esther visited Ecclesholme, a Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) care home in Manchester, at the end of last year to gain a better understanding of the needs of elderly RMBI residents. Both she and Ernie believe that effective pastoral care can transform people’s lives.
‘A core value among Freemasons has always been to help those less fortunate than yourself. We try to instil that in every single member,’ says Ernie. ‘The role of the almoner is a vital part of lodge life – not just to manage financial needs, but to deal with loneliness and isolation as well.’
Isolation is a topic that also comes up in conversation with Dame Esther, and The Silver Line, which launched at the end of 2013, includes a befriending service to help combat loneliness.
‘The idea came to me when I was standing at a conference about the elderly, discussing an article I’d written about living alone for the first time, aged 71,’ she explains. ‘I got the most extraordinary flashback to the same situation 30 years before, when I had been talking about another problem with a stigma attached – namely, child abuse. Because no one wants to admit to loneliness, do they? Many older people are very proud and they don’t want to be a burden.’
Just 18 months on, The Silver Line is taking up to 1,000 calls a day. The befriending service has a waiting list of 1,000 people, and the charity is training its volunteers (known as Silver Line Friends) at a rate of 100 a week. There’s no doubt in Dame Esther’s mind that her helpline is fulfilling an intrinsic need for many elderly people.
‘Most of our callers tell us they have no one else they can talk to,’ she says sadly. ‘One Christmas, I spoke to a caller and he said it was the first time in years that he had talked to someone on Christmas Day. Many elderly people can go for a couple of weeks without having a proper conversation. It can happen to anyone – there are a lot of intelligent, interesting people who find themselves isolated.’
Isolating the problem
Loneliness is normally caused by loss of some kind – a partner, a job, or someone’s sight, hearing or mobility, for example. Becoming a carer to a loved one can also bring on intense feelings of isolation. It’s a familiar topic for Ernie’s care team in the Province of West Lancashire, where the widows of the brethren are key beneficiaries, particularly in times of sickness and financial hardship. The support is there when it’s needed, and Ernie has a loyal group of almoners with a compassionate ear.
Almoner Danny Parks, 76, and Regional Care Officer George Seddon, 73, have experienced personal loss themselves and can empathise with the feelings of despair that follow. ‘An almoner needs to be caring, considerate, diplomatic and sympathetic – all of that comes into it,’ says Danny. ‘I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people. I lost my wife and there’s nothing worse than the loneliness. It’s a dreadful thing and some people can cope with it, and some can’t.’
Danny has great faith in face-to-face contact and he diligently visits the 15 widows in his care on a fortnightly basis. ‘You have to get out of the house and meet people – that’s when you find out what help they really need,’ he explains. ‘Their problems might only be small, but they’re still problems.’
George agrees: ‘There are many people in need but they’re too proud to ask. My mum was 99 when she died so I’ve been able to draw on my own experience. You need to be understanding and able to find solutions where you can. It’s all about gaining people’s confidence and developing trust.’
Almoner Alan Whitehouse, 70, believes talking is crucial: ‘Some of the people we visit have seen no one for weeks. They have probably outlived their friends and peers, which is very sad.’ Alan uses his homemade jams and chutneys as a ‘door-opener’ and makes sure he’s always available on the other end of the phone. All three men praise the changes that Ernie has made to the structure of the West Lancashire Provincial care team.
Getting out and about
For Ernie, it’s vital that the members and widows of the Province are aware of the support available. ‘It’s not always easy to identify exactly who needs help – particularly when elderly people are reluctant to ask for it,’ he explains. ‘So I’m trying to enable the almoners to spend more time delivering pastoral care, and less time doing admin.’
Believing that there is still much work to be done when it comes to helping older people, some of Ernie’s team are also becoming Silver Line Friends. George was the first to sign up and is currently being trained by the charity. ‘It’s a good transfer of skills and experience, and the training they offer is excellent,’ he says.
Dame Esther hopes that other Freemasons will consider volunteering, too. ‘Being a Silver Line Friend only takes an hour a week,’ she says. ‘You can do it from your own home and we provide all the training. If you enjoy having conversations with other people, do visit our website to apply.’
Thanks to Ernie, George, Alan and Danny, and all the other almoners across West Lancashire Province, the older community is in safe hands. According to George, ‘The role of the almoner is the most rewarding job in Freemasonry.’
The Silver Line is a free, confidential service: 0800 4 70 80 90, www.thesilverline.org.uk
After a life of structure and relationships forged through work, many men feel an absence in their lives once they retire. The RMBI therefore supports residents with a range of activities to fill this void
Maintaining hobbies and keeping up with regular social activities can be difficult for those who are less able to get out and about and whose cognitive functions may be in decline. Taking part in stimulating and enjoyable activities and meeting new people is vitally important for older people in order to combat loneliness, keep active and retain a sense of identity and connection to the past.
Jack MacMurran, a resident of RMBI care home Cadogan Court in Exeter, has been participating in Men in Sheds, an innovative project run by Age UK Exeter. The scheme brings together men over the age of fifty in the familiar surroundings of a ‘shed’ or workshop, for practical activities such as woodworking, while socialising and learning new skills. The renovated garden furniture and equipment is donated to charity, raising funds for worthy causes worldwide.
Jack has been part of the Men in Sheds programme since 2012. During this time, he has made new friends, shared memories and repaired everything from wheelbarrows to birdhouses. Jack says: ‘I’ve made some great friends through Men in Sheds. We enjoy talking about what we’ve been doing that week and it’s nice to have a change of scenery. I used to work on ships and still enjoy making and fixing things; it’s great that I can still do this once a week and nice to know that what I make is put to good use.’
Another Cadogan Court resident, Stan Ashdown, eighty-one, also enjoys making things out of wood – although the furniture he produces is in miniature form. Stan has always loved carpentry, having built stage sets for local theatre productions in his younger years, but it was after his retirement that he became interested in doll’s house construction and miniature furniture, turning a spare room at home into his workshop.
Since moving into the RMBI home with his wife Elsie last April, Stan has continued with his hobby, producing beautifully crafted items such as tiny beds, tables and wardrobes, replicating styles from different periods.
Just like old times
A key aspect of life in RMBI care homes for many male residents is the masonic fraternity itself. Each RMBI home has an Association of Friends formed of local masonic volunteers, who make a vital contribution to residents’ quality of life. They organise events and raise funds to enable the purchase of items such as minibuses and audio equipment, as well as the creation of leisure areas.
Male residents can also enjoy masonic activities through the Good Neighbour Lodge, No. 8378, whose meetings take place in the homes on rotation.
Ecclesholme in Manchester is one of several RMBI homes that now has a bar, recently converted from an old lounge. The bar offers real ales and traditional pub games, and at eighty-six years old, George Hogget is a regular. His daughter says he ‘thoroughly enjoys chatting and reminiscing with the other gentlemen residents over a pint, just like old times’.
‘A key aspect of life in RMBI care homes for many male residents is the masonic fraternity itself.’