At St John’s Hospice, we are incredibly lucky to have an amazing team of volunteers who play a key role in helping us deliver our essential palliative care. Last year our volunteers gave over 18,668 hours in time to our Hospice.

Sophie Gray is our Community Fundraising and Volunteering Coordinator and spoke to us about a new Befriender scheme she has created to ensure our patients are always being looked after, especially during this difficult time of COVID-19. 

I wanted to introduce a Befriender scheme to the Hospice to support patients outside of the Hospice. Originally we thought it would be good for volunteers to go to patients’ homes and visit with them if they were unable to come into the Hospice and were feeling isolated.

A volunteer coming over to the patient’s home, having a chat, doing odd jobs, a bit of shopping or something as simple as the dishes. Little things can make a big difference to a patient living with a life-limiting illness. 

Then coronavirus happened. In order to keep patients, staff and volunteers safe we had to close the Day Care Centre. Our patients still living at home were put into lockdown and, due to their illnesses, strict self-isolation. Normally they would be coming into the day centre around two times a week, where they would have a social aspect as well as the physical check-ins with our medical team.

For these patients, sitting at home – many of them alone, without any kind of timeline on when they might be able to return to the day centre – was going to put incredible strain on their mental wellbeing. So we needed to adapt how we look after them and how the volunteers could help us on that front.

If a volunteer couldn’t go to a patient’s home we thought telephone befriending could work. We try to partner up patients with volunteers who we think will have common interests. For example, we had a patient who really likes to discuss current affairs and religion so I matched her up with a volunteer who I know has similar interests and is able to hold a conversation about them. It’s important to ensure both parties enjoy their conversations. 

Once or twice a week the volunteer will call the patient and they just chat. Suddenly our patients at home feel less isolated knowing they are not alone through all this. They do, of course, have regular check-ins with our medical team and our ambulance drivers have been amazing at ensuring everyone has all that they need right down to shopping. But being able to speak to a volunteer can make a huge difference to our patients. I’ve been told that some chats have gone on for two hours which is fantastic – it shows the two parties are really connecting.

Yesterday, a volunteer who spoke to a day centre patient told us the patient really enjoys singing and is a beautiful singer. So she ended up playing the volunteer a recording of her singing. They really bonded over it and it’s lovely they can share that together. 

Often we’re finding a patient will open up more to a volunteer. Patients have regular phone calls from staff, which are invaluable, but often with volunteers, it’s a more informal conversation as they are not discussing the clinical aspects of how the patient is doing. The volunteer will often gain key insights into how a patient is really doing. We take as much pride in looking after someone’s mental wellbeing as we do their physical health. 

Volunteers have also told us it’s been of huge benefit to them because they love what they do and want to help. Many of them have told me how rewarding it is, that they feel like they are helping and making a difference at a time when there is so much going on in the world that is outside of their control. 

The feedback we’ve had from patients has been amazing. Last week one of them told me how much she appreciates the day services she usually goes to. She said it’s like a family when she’s here, so to be able to have a connection to that family even on lockdown has made a huge difference in her life. She said she feels so loved and supported and is able to remain hopeful in these difficult times.