Anyone with grandparents should count themselves lucky. I wish mine were still here to advise me about boyfriends, university, career and marriage. I only knew two of my grandparents and sadly, by the age of 16, I lost them. I have always felt the absence of my grandmother’s words of wisdom that came from a place of life experience and understanding.
After university I worked for a youth movement. It was a challenging time for me, as I tried to get to grips with my newfound responsibility balancing a demanding job, my family, the health struggles of a close friend and my own anxieties. I desperately missed the gentle encouragement and support of my grandmother and visited The Fed to become a befriender. The role entailed visiting elderly people in the area, helping them do their shopping, accompanying them to doctor’s appointments or visiting them for a cup of tea. What struck me most was the loneliness of these elderly people. The thought of somebody feeling so isolated or lonely in a community full of people made me despair and I worried about what that meant for my parents or for me later in life.
Driven by my experience, I approached Jewish Care and asked if I could become a befriender with them. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Rose and I began visiting her at home. I had expected to find a frail old lady who was only vaguely aware of my existence and who nodded briefly as I talked about the weather. At 99, Rose was the picture of elegance. She wore a blouse with a pin at the collar, entertained her friends and neighbours and always had tea and cake at 3pm.
Our conversation topics were never restricted to the weather or the news. We much preferred to talk about our families, the places we had both visited and to look at photos together. If the weather was nice, we’d often drive up to a café on the high street for a change of scenery.
When Rose had a fall after her 100th birthday, I continued to visit her in the hospital. Sometimes when I’d visit, she’d be asleep, so I spent time getting to know the family members I’d heard so much about. The prognosis wasn’t good and she started to refuse medicine. Miraculously, she recovered well, but not enough to return home.
Rose went on to spend a couple of years at Jewish Care’s Lady Sarah Cohen house in Barnet and I continued to visit her there. Even on her lowest days, her sense of humour never wavered. Most importantly, she taught me to value friends, family and health more than anything. She loved life and was lucky enough to remember the best days of her life up until the end. Although Rose could never replace my grandma (and we always corrected anybody who mistook us for family), she reminded me of her. My grandma would have liked to have joined our conversations.
As young people with busy lives, we often find ourselves rushing from one place to another, stressed by our to-do lists and short on time. I understand the challenges. I know that volunteering can feel like another activity to squeeze into an already hectic life and that, for some people, hospitals and care homes are unpleasant places. I also understand that committing to something on a regular basis can be difficult. Despite all of these obstacles, I encourage everybody to befriend an elderly person. Knowing that your time benefits somebody is a fantastic feeling, but feeling the benefit yourself is even better.