Pat moved to Gillingham in 2015 from Corfe Mullen. A widow for 26 years she had become accustomed to living on her own, but as she grew older, she began to need the support of family.
In moving, she left behind 76 years of life in the Dorset village – and it was a shock. ‘At first I thought, “what have I done?” she says. ‘I was like a fish out of water. I had to start all over again and I didn’t know how.’
To accustom herself to her new life she went to counselling. ‘It help me get used to the change, to live in the today rather than dwelling on the past,’ she says. ‘I desperately needed that, and it did help.’
Afterwards, Pat threw herself into community life. A retired florist until her arthritis stopped her, she arranged the flowers for her local church. She still bakes cakes for St Mary the Virgin School, going in once a week plus she does craft mornings and regularly helps out at St Martins Grange care home. ‘My husband Gerald died of a brain tumour and because of that I feel I understand people with dementia, and so I volunteered to help,’ she says.
She also comes to Companion Hours every Thursday morning at The Secret Garden Cafe in Thorngrove Garden Centre. Over coffee, and this week, a scone with jam, she chats to others who, for whatever reason, feel alone and come along to enjoy the company of others.
An initiative of Mandy Greenwood, wife of local vicar, Peter, Companion Hours began in 2017 and have now become an established part of the community and are part of the fight against social isolation and loneliness. Currently, there are three meeting places in Gillingham, and each is anchored by a volunteer coffee companion who is there each week.
‘It’s been lovely to see that people are enjoying attending Companions Hours in all the locations,’ says Mandy. ‘For some it’s just broadened their social circle, for others it’s been a big part of realising that they can be part of the community in Gillingham and that they can meet people who enjoy their company. There’s been much laughter, some shared sadness, some friendships formed, and lots of opinions and information passed on.’
At Thorngrove, Pat’s daughter Caroline Anthony, now a life coach but formerly a family support officer tackling loneliness, hosts the hour. ‘I understand how important it is to get people together,’ she says. ‘The reasons for loneliness are many – domestic abuse, moving to a new area, bereavement, family moving away, retirement and no longer having that support group. Or someone who has no children may have no extended family to care for them. Mental health issues are also a block to people coming out.’
As well as chatting over coffee, the coffee companions also introduce people and will also accompany them at the beginning if needed – which is often the case. ‘We hope to support people to overcome their barriers,’ says Caroline. ‘We listen out for people who need that phone call to say, “we can meet you there” so that when they arrive, they are not alone.’
At Cafe Newt, Billy Kelly, is one of a group of three regular coffee companions. ‘I became a coffee companion to try, in a very small way, to help reduce loneliness and isolation in our community,’ he says. ‘I know we only reach the tip of the iceberg, but anything is better than nothing. In my 30 years in journalism in Ireland, I encountered a lot of lonely people and came to realise how deeply distressing this can be. I also realised that the solution is not complicated – contact is all that is necessary. So, I have always felt that I should help provide that contact, when I could. Coffee companions is a very convenient way to achieve this. It only involves a little bit of time on my part.
Listening to the stories the coffee companions have to tell is always surprising and inspiring. What a shame it would be not to have these stories told and listened to. I get a lot out of the meetings and I look forward to the weekly chats.’
Doreen is a regular at Cafe Newt. Like Pat, she too moved to Gillingham to live with her daughter; she left behind 40 years of life in Cornwall. ‘It’s not until you leave that you realise just what you’ve left,’ she says. ‘There I was very involved in the community; I would walk down the street and people would say “Hello Doreen…” It was lovely. ‘
Knowing no-one, she decided to come along to Companions Hour at Cafe Newt. ‘It was on my doorstep and I thought it would be nice to meet different people and have a chat,’ she says. ‘When you get older, you can’t always do what you used to do when you were younger but this is something I can do.’
At Gillingham Library, the absence of a kitchen doesn’t stop the convivial atmosphere every Tuesday morning, with tea, coffee and biscuits served from a trolley. Maria lived in Marnhull for 25 years until her husband died. Unable to drive, she moved to Gillingham to be close to the train and bus services, as well as shops.
She may be in her nineties, but Maria’s very sprightly, walking from her home to the library. She keeps herself busy with walking, gardening and swimming. ‘But I do enjoy a natter and Companions Hour is a good reason to meet people and to chat. And being at the library, I am also encouraged to borrow a book!’
COMPANIONS HOURS IN GILLINGHAM
Mondays, 11am-noon @ Café Newt, Wyke Road
Tuesdays, 11am – noon @ Gillingham Library
Thursdays, 11am – noon @ The Secret Garden Cafe, Thorngrove Garden Centre