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Understanding befriending: a study of befriending schemes for older people




Mercers’ Company

Publication year:


Befriending is a service for the purposes of companionship, typically based on regular one-to-one contact between a volunteer and an individual with limited social connections. During the Covid-19 pandemic this form of support has become more widespread, so it is timely to consider how befriending works, and what we can learn from experienced providers. This report shares the insights and lessons from thirteen established befriending schemes for older people, run by organisations funded by charities for which the Mercers’ Company is trustee. The primary goal of befriending is to foster a positive, open-ended relationship between two individuals. There are a number of important factors necessary for establishing and sustaining positive, lasting relationships: volunteer effort and emotional investment; matching and introduction; removing barriers; limiting eligibility – schemes generally exclude people whose support needs may create a barrier to long-term relationships, for example those with moderate to severe dementia and/or mental health issues; setting boundaries, such as limits on the practical support volunteers can offer, on cash handling, and on the extent of contact, are put in place to ensure that relationships remain sustainable. Befriending relationships have value in their own right, and are the primary outcome of befriending services. However, these relationships provide only limited social contact, and are unlikely to fully satisfy an individual’s need for connection. Befriending does have other important benefits: fostering a meaningful relationship; awakening interests – volunteers can help service users reconnect with old interests or develop new ones to sustain them between befriending visits; and acting as an early warning system – befriending volunteers are often able to act as “canaries in the coalmine”, spotting emerging needs and flagging these to schemes for early action. (Edited publisher abstract)

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