As we were about to sit down for our weekly lunch, the quietly smiling Grace reached out her hands to mine and said: “What joy you bring into my life!” Grace, 87, widowed ten years ago, her only son a 2-hour drive away. Grace idly watches the minutes, as the voices on her television screen speak through her, without her. She waits, counting the minutes left until our next meeting: Friday at noon…

 

Grace is like thousands of women, and thousands of men, who wait, ever so quietly, ever so lonesome, behind unopened doors in our society. This loneliness seems amongst our seniors to be a phenomenon of almost epidemic proportions, bringing with it many physical, social and psychological challenges. How, then, are they expected to pursue happiness and find meaning in their lives, when such can only be found when shared?

 

During the past 17 years, the Portuguese volunteer organisation Associação Coração Amarelo has provided a nationwide service to people in Grace’s situation. The core of its purpose has been to tackle social isolation and loneliness amongst the elderly by carefully matching a volunteer with an elder, creating an opportunity for a new relationship to develop. It is the reassurance of this bond that rekindles a long lost sense of connection for many older people. As with any friendship, this relationship demands regular contact – weekly visits and phone calls – and is gradually nurtured over many  months – in most cases years.

 

Several studies show how detrimental loneliness and social isolation have become, contributing to, and resulting from, multiple physical and mental health issues as well as a loss of mobility and income. For this reason, Associação Coração Amarelo constantly strives to find innovative ways to mitigate loneliness, due to the urgent, complex and dramatic nature of this reality.

 

In our Lisbon based office, an army of over two hundred volunteers attempt to alleviate this loneliness, and contribute to renew a sense of wellbeing amongst the city’s older population. A new structure has been implemented and active for the past seven years: a small grant is attributed by the Government to our Association allowing for the recruitment of a small professional team of workers – a Psychologist, a Social Worker, and an Occupational Therapist. This synergetic effort brought upon by professionals and volunteers created a significant added value to our volunteer work, enabling us to respond more thoroughly to the multiple social and psychological needs of our elderly.

 

Our ultimate proposal in finding positive responses for this social crisis is in creating an effective collaboration between social services and volunteer organisations.

 

All human, financial and administrative resources should be considered complementary to each other, regardless of  the different approaches used to tackle this most urgent social drama which keeps unfolding before our eyes.

 

Joana Pizarro Miranda, Associação Coração Amarelo