Young volunteers provide company for care home residents with dementia through YOPEY Dementia Befriender.
Fed up with how young people were being portrayed in the media, former journalist Tony Gearing MBE ran more than 80 Young People of the Year contests to showcase the good they were doing in their communities.
In 2012, this initiative became the charity YOPEY, and the following year YOPEY Dementia Befriender was launched. Through this, young people volunteer to meet and spend time with care home residents.
‘I was determined to give young people an opportunity to help cure loneliness among the elderly,’ says Tony, who operates mostly in the east of England.
Tony, a Dementia Friends Champion, makes sure that his befrienders have a ‘firm understanding’ of dementia before interacting with residents.
‘I tell volunteers that even if a resident can’t remember their visit, they’ll still get that warm fuzzy feeling,’ he says.
‘When you see genuine friendships develop between 16- and 86-year-olds, it’s a wonderful thing. That’s the magic YOPEY brings.’
With face-to-face visits not possible during the pandemic, Tony launched Virtual YOPEY Befriender. Young volunteers would write letters and compile crosswords and word searches for residents, as well as filming themselves singing or performing for a YOPEY Virtual Variety Show.
The virtual scheme proved so successful that it has continued nationally alongside the local in-person Visiting YOPEY Befriender, which returned in September.
Hannah was one of the teenagers who volunteered in person before the pandemic.
‘I wanted to challenge the perception that young people would run a mile rather than choose to visit a residential care home,’ she says.
‘We live in a culture of stereotypes, like those about older people which are wrong, and that young people are always on their phones and do nothing. But look at us, we are doing something different.’
Being a befriender has given Hannah an ‘education in the challenges of dementia’.
‘I’ve gained a deeper understanding about dementia, which most people simply do not know enough about,’ she says.
Sixth-form student Matthew has been both an in-person and virtual befriender.
‘At the start, I was awkwardly incapable of making conversation with a man called Ken. However, he became the resident I spoke to most in my visits,’ he says.
‘Over time I became more socially capable, going from my paralysed first encounter to dancing with residents and having conversations.’
Lauren, another sixth-former, says that becoming a virtual befriender changed her view of older people.
‘Writing to the residents has been so much fun. As they recall stories and memories, I have discovered they are all children at heart,’ she says.
‘Even though you may have to try a bit harder with some to find it, once you reach their childish side, they are so much fun and such good company. It is so rewarding when you build a bond with a resident.’
Karen is the daughter of care home resident Jean, who has dementia. Jean often told Karen how much she enjoyed talking to the YOPEY befrienders.
‘I think it is vital for some elderly people just to know that someone, whether it is family, friends or the befrienders, is coming in to see them,’ says Karen.
Vince, Karen’s husband, notes that some residents may have no one else to talk to other than a befriender.
Gary is the son of another care home resident with dementia who has been visited by a YOPEY befriender.
‘The residents are looked after very well, but there is not much time for staff to have that personal interaction,’ he says.
‘Any one-to-one and time dedicated to interaction is a good thing and can only be positive for people like Mum.’
YOPEY Dementia Befriender is also available to care home residents who might be living with dementia, even if they don’t yet have a formal diagnosis.
‘I enjoy the company of the young people. It’s lovely to have them visit, and they take the time to sit and chat to us,’ says a 91-year old resident.
‘We talk about all sorts, old times, and pass on our memories. I think we learn lots from each other.’
An activities manager at care home provider Excelcare says Virtual YOPEY Befriender has also proved popular with residents.
‘It engages them in something different, hearing about other people’s lives, and reminiscing about their own lives,’ they say.
‘It makes them feel valued, and being able to give the young people advice gives them self-worth.
‘They love that the young people are interested about the lives they have lived.’