AFTER each visit to my "OAPal", I cycle away smiling broadly to myself.
Although I have to remain on the chilly doorstep nowadays, I know I've brightened her day and she without fail always brightens mine.
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We met about three-and-a-half years ago, matched by Age UK Wandsworth through a slightly bizarre dating-style application based on interests and location.
I signed up for the Befriender scheme wanting to offer company to an older person who might be feeling lonely, hoping I would enjoy myself too.
But after spending hundreds of hours sharing homemade soup, sipping coffees, sitting at hospital bedsides and swapping tales – I have ended up with a lifelong friend.
It's a lengthy but worthwhile process – I had to get a recommendation, fill out an application and then go through safeguarding training and an interview before sitting down with Maureen.
I agreed to allocate at least an hour to spend with her each week, and have managed to do so with the odd blip for holidays and inpatient stays.
It stopped being an act of volunteering fairly quickly and my weekly slot with her is just a regular event in my social calendar now.
The pandemic changed how we could be together – luckily she is a Skype pro so we used that during the first lockdown, before I was able to sit safely in her garden throughout the summer.
Now I wrap up warm and take a flask of tea to natter from her doorstep, as she sits inside near a radiator and I repeatedly ask if she is cold.
Witnessing how much Maureen (and myself) needed to remain in proper contact with friends through the turbulent year made me worry for older people who aren't tech savvy, or don't have someone checking in with them.
Loneliness amongst the elderly is a growing problem which has been made far worse during the pandemic, with millions now isolated over the winter.
Tragically, Age UK saw a 300 per cent increase in the number of older people requesting a telephone friendship service during the height of the pandemic.
At the beginning of November, 6.1 million people over 60 years old said they were feeling especially lonely.
It is thought more than 850,000 older people could have been alone this Christmas, after a year which has seen many feel more lonely than ever.
The elderly have been left struggling with the feeling of isolation, boredom and loneliness – not knowing when they might be able to next have proper human contact.
Older people hit by loneliness:
Marjorie, 98: "I think since I've been losing my sight, I've felt lonelier. Loneliness is like a nothingness, I just miss my life.
"Christmas without friends is no fun, because of the virus I haven't been out for six months.
"I'd like to go to sleep on Christmas Eve and not wake up until New Year's Day.
"I really enjoy the Age UK telephone calls, it is something to look forward to. There's a friendship there and it does give you a lift, especially when you're on your own."
Amrita, 92: "During lockdown I missed interacting with people. Days can pass, I don't have anyone to talk to.
"I was very lonely and so I look forward to her calls, my telephone friend. The Age UK telephone service is very important. It's filled a void for me."
- Source: Age UK
Maureen is lucky – she has family who deeply care for her and call daily.
Her children have been to visit as part of a bubble and I am just a phonecall away, willing to deliver emergency crisps, cat pictures and air hugs.
When she is feeling low, especially during the winter coronavirus months when no one can come inside, I know it lifts her to have an extra person nearby and in her corner.
She told me: "It's the best thing that's happened to me. I have people come and see me, but we can really talk.
"You've become a real friend now, and my family knows you too. I feel very lucky."
But others are not so fortunate in their support network, and so Age UK has launched a 'no one should be alone' campaign for the festive period.
It says: "Before the outbreak of coronavirus, we were already facing a loneliness epidemic amongst older people. But as a result of the pandemic, this crisis has intensified.
"If there was ever a time when Age UK’s services were desperately needed, it is now.
"We cannot let older people suffer alone. Not this year. Not ever."
The Sun’s campaign to combat loneliness this Christmas:
THIS Christmas we are teaming up with the Together Campaign, a coalition of community groups and organisations, and Royal Voluntary Service to combat loneliness.
And we want to recruit an army of volunteers to support those feeling cut off, anxious and isolated, this Christmas.
Could YOU reach out to someone who might be struggling and alone?
It might be someone you know in your own life or community who needs support.
Or we can connect you with someone in need through the NHS Volunteer responder programme run by the NHS, Royal Voluntary Service and the GoodSAM app.
Could you give up half an hour to make a call and chat with someone feeling isolated? Or could you volunteer to deliver essential shopping or festive treats?
Go to nhsvolunteerresponders.org.uk/christmastogether to sign up as a volunteer.
You will then receive an email taking you through the sign up process and be asked to download the responder app which will match you to those in need in your area.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a job straight away, because jobs are matched according to the need local to you. Being ready to help is what really matters.
The Together Campaign is part of the Great Winter Get Together. Find out more here.
Dame Judi Dench, Age UK ambassador, said: “We’ve heard so many heart-breaking stories this year of older people being cut off from their loved ones, through the restrictions which we’ve all had to follow and wanting to keep people safe from catching and spreading the virus.
"And now when we would normally be looking forward to Christmas celebrations and getting together to bring some cheer, many older people are facing their most difficult winter ever.
“We can all do something to help, whether that’s checking on an older friend or relative, helping someone in your area or making a donation, please think about how you can support older people today.”
You can get involved and do your bit to help an older person feel less alone, while also potentially gaining a pal for life.
Sign up to be a face-to-face Befriender or join the army of telephone callers.
They also have an advice line, open every day, for older people who have no one else to turn to.
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