It seems somewhat counterintuitive that a membership organization called Opening Doors London would be thriving in the middle of a pandemic. Based in central London, the charity typically does exactly what its name suggests, hosting 45 different groups and activities for LGBTQ people over age 50 each month, from film nights and creative writing workshops, to community gardening days and coffee mornings. Perhaps the most vital of all its social offerings, though, is a befriending service that gives companionship to the most vulnerable and isolated in the community by way of a weekly visit from a volunteer.
Given that a recent Stonewall report found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people over 55 are more likely to be single and live alone, the COVID-19 outbreak has left older LGBTQ people at an even greater risk of loneliness than their peers. By the time social distancing was enforced in the U.K. on March 24, however, Opening Doors had a creative solution to the suspension of its face-to-face services: a free telefriending service. The newly launched helpline quickly began offering around 470 people on the charity’s postal list a weekly phone call with a volunteer, giving increasingly isolated members a chance to chat with someone familiar.
“We were getting 30–40 referrals per week, and we don’t even get that many in a year sometimes,” said Befriending Coordinator Meghan Herring, who matches members based on availability and personal interests. “The whole point is you don’t just want anyone calling you, you want something interesting to talk about.” From the outset, telefrienders were making critical interventions. “We spoke to one member who didn’t have lights in her kitchen or hallway,” she added. “I was able to do a referral on Friday, and by Monday, she had lights again in her house. We spoke to another person who was living off cereal and water, and we were able to get them a food parcel. So whilst we don’t provide those extra services, we can signpost and tell other people where they are and let them know.”
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