Sam Higgins, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Engagement Officer, Re-engage
Somewhere over the rainbow companions call.
When you’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat you might be tempted to rest on your laurels.
But not at Re-engage, where we are dedicated to ending loneliness and isolation among those aged 75 and over.
The Covid pandemic shut down our core activities – free monthly tea parties for older people – but some agile thinking led to a new telephone befriending service being introduced.
This allowed volunteers to maintain contact with the tea party ‘guests’ to ensure their social circle had not vanished completely. The service was set-up within weeks and soon 8000 older people were receiving regular calls.
In fact call companions proved so successful that we were encouraged to target a new, harder to reach audience. And so, a year ago our charity launched rainbow call companions (rcc), which matches older LGBT+ members with like volunteers who provide what many refer to as a ‘lifeline’.
Unlike the original call companions, which came from an ingenious spontaneous response to a sudden crisis, rcc was the result of our research which showed that older LGBT+ people were more likely to be alone and less likely to have family support.
Many of those we surveyed said they didn’t feel a part of their community and feared being open about their gender identity or sexual orientation with others because they might get a negative response.
So, rainbow call companions was launched and immediately more than 150 volunteers -aged 18 to 79 – came forward, eager to offer support to a group which had suffered humiliating prejudice during their earlier years.
It also resonated with professionals and within months had received the NHS National Advisor for LGBT Health Award with Dr Michael Brady, from LGBT Health, NHS England telling us: “This work takes courage and persistence and I am really grateful for your efforts which, I have no doubt, will have benefited LGBT individuals greatly.
We now have nearly 50 older LGBT+ people who have been matched with a volunteer and another ten applications are being processed. Re-engage is aiming to have 100 service users by next April.
This really is a hard-to-reach audience but we are confident that by providing an excellent service many older LGBT+ people will continue to find it incredibly helpful and supportive and as word spreads more will take advantage of it.
As people get older they might feel they want to live their true lives before they die. Some in the LGBT+ community may have been in a relationship for many years and now their partner has passed on they feel at a loss.
And that’s where rainbow call companions comes in.
Some of our service users have had very tough lives and though they might be resilient it’s incredibly re-assuring for them to know there is someone who understands them, doesn’t judge them and just simply will have a chat with them.
This is also a two-way service as our volunteers tell us they find it very fulfilling. They look forward to making the calls and enjoy listening to the older people while gaining an understanding of how they can improve their lives.
Many of the older LGBT+ people might not speak to anyone from one week to the next but forming social networks through rainbow call companions can help cushion them from this loneliness.
As one of them told me: “The service is absolutely fantastic. Talking to someone on the same level is brilliant.”
If you know of someone who would benefit from the rainbow call companion service or want to know more about Re-engage go to: Find a rainbow call companion: LGBT+ phone befriending (reengage.org.uk)