Norman Lamb - Volunteers play a key role in the health and care system
Volunteers' Week marked the significant contribution millions of people across the country make to improve others' lives. Volunteers play a key role in the health and care system, helping us to tackle arguably the greatest challenge we face - an ageing population.
Last Friday I set off from my constituency office in North Walsham to visit an elderly lady I met through a local volunteering scheme. My job is to take her books from the library and collect the last lot. Each time I stay for a chat. She is a wonderful character - still knitting and baking despite severe arthritis.
And last Thursday I visited a Time Credits scheme in King's Lynn - a fantastic programme which is growing rapidly. It helps combat loneliness and supports vulnerable people by encouraging them to connect with their community. People who volunteer earn credits which they can then spend, such as on a visit to the leisure centre or to watch the Speedway. The scheme has attracted a whole host of first-time volunteers. I heard about a group who had decorated their local school. And for the volunteer it may well open up access to local services which they otherwise may not be able to afford. The volunteers themselves may, for example, have learning disabilities or mental health problems or have suffered homelessness. Doing something of value helps give all of us a sense of self-worth; everyone benefits from an excellent scheme like this.
I also went to the Soho/Victoria Friends & Neighbours project in Sandwell where a brilliant 'community supporter' takes a lonely person to church or to the library or a football match – giving isolated, older people the confidence and companionship to enable them to do what they enjoy doing, and enriching their own lives in the process.
These are just three examples of volunteering. Every day across the country, from Cromer to Cheltenham and Newcastle to Newquay, an army of volunteers provide comfort and support and are a lifeline to many of those most in need in our society.
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We know around 2.5 million older people often feel lonely, with more than half of people over 75 living alone. Worryingly an estimated 5 million older people consider television their main form of company. We also know loneliness can damage both mental and physical health. It increases the risk of heart disease, blood clots and dementia. Socially isolated adults are also more likely to end up in residential or nursing care earlier. We desperately need to address this. We must not inadvertently neglect those who perhaps live on our street but who may not see anyone from day to day or from week-to-week.
Every one of us can take action to combat loneliness by volunteering. Helping a lonely older person could be something as simple as popping round for a cup of tea, or helping them to do their grocery shopping. There is no substitute for companionship and sometimes this sort of support is a better solution than a formal care visit. We can all take small steps to reach out to someone in our local community.
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I know that we cannot compel people to volunteer; our role is to support those projects which help people to volunteer and to create an environment where volunteering activities can take place more easily. Several of our integrated care pioneers across the country have recognised that by embracing volunteering we can improve lives and cut costs to the NHS – like the Cornwall project with Age UK in Newquay which is enabling older people to lead a more independent life and is credited with reducing unnecessary hospital A&E admissions by a third.
You can help to drive this change to end loneliness.
If you pledge to help an older person this year by volunteering, if you are able to give 30 minutes of your time just twice a month, the difference you could make is huge.
For further information about volunteering in your area, please visit the Royal Voluntary Service website here: http://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/