Ohen Margaret Shiplee retired from her job as a home care worker for people with special needs 15 years ago, she was distraught. “I thought, oh my God – I have to do something now,” she said. “If I stopped doing anything, I would be bored to death. I’m not very good at relaxing.
Shiplee, who is 75 and lives in Worlingham, east Suffolk, then heard of an initiative called the friendship program, which connects adults with learning disabilities or mental health needs to people in their community. She registered and was matched with Julie Martin, 58, from nearby Beccles, who has a learning disability. The two have now been friends for nearly 15 years.
The first time Shiplee met Martin was at a bingo night at a welcome center in a Quaker hall. Julie seemed a little desperate. “His mother had just died,” Shiplee said. “She was all alone.”
Shiplee’s 40 years of working with people with learning disabilities have been a boon. “We hit it off,” Shiplee says. The key, she says, is to “treat them like you would treat anyone else. Don’t talk to them in a belittling way or anything like that. Talk to them like you would talk to your friends, because that’s really who they are.
Every Wednesday, Martin and Shiplee get together. They go to lunch, have coffee, go bowling or go to the beach. “You get so much more out of it than you give out,” Shiplee says of their friendship. “It’s wonderful. Julie is so much fun. She’s full of beans. She has her bad days, like all of us. But mostly she’s quite bubbly and she’s always grateful. Martin recently learned to use a cell phone and has then sent Shiplee a lovely message, which Shiplee cherishes.
The feeling is mutual. “She cares about me,” Martin says. Shiplee is “a special friend. Always friendly and nice. She’s easy to talk to. And she kept me away from the doctor, which is great.
By this, Martin means her habit of regularly going to the GP’s office, fearing that something is wrong with her. “She used to go sit in surgery almost every day,” Shiplee says. “I think it was for her to have a bit of a connection with someone. Every time I see her now she says, ‘I didn’t call the doctor!'” They joke about money that Shiplee has saved the NHS.
Shiplee helps Martin with forms and paperwork, helped her get her Covid-19 shot, and takes her to her hospital appointments. “If she has a problem,” Shiplee said, “she comes to see me.” Martin goes to Shiplee for Christmas most years. “She comes to lunch and I take her home in the afternoon,” she said. “I can’t let her be alone.”
Sometimes people are nervous about making friends because they are afraid of having nothing to say. But silence is not the worst thing in the world. “The silence doesn’t bother me at all,” Shiplee says. “If Julie sits quietly, I just say, ‘Aren’t we talking now? Have we fallen?
According to Campaign to end loneliness, around 9 million people are alone in the UK. Loneliness is associated with negative health effects such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It is estimated that half a million older people go at least six days a week without seeing or talking to anyone.
Making new friends can “transform lives”, says Christine Roe, who works for the Befriending Scheme, by “establishing the vital initial connections between vulnerable people who might otherwise feel sad or lonely”.
The two women have gained a lot of friendship. “She taught me to take life as it comes,” Shiplee says of Martin. “She is always so happy. We always laugh a little. »
When I ask him about his guardian angel treat, Shiplee balks, like so many selfless people do. “I’ve never been offered anything like this before,” she said, appalled. The only thing she would like, Shiplee said after thinking for a moment, were fresh flowers. Shiplee grew up on a farm and loves being around living things. “They’re so lovely to have around the house, but expensive,” she says.
Arena flowers, one flower subscription service, offers to send fresh flowers to Shiplee fortnightly for a year. I catch up with her after her first delivery. “It was such a big bouquet,” says Shiplee. “I didn’t know if I had a big enough vase. But I didn’t want to separate them, because they are so well made. She can’t wait for her next delivery.
The flowers will be replaced by a fresh bouquet in two weeks. They are a living reminder of a treasured friendship, as well as the mutual benefits that come from connecting with our local community and overcoming your fears to say hello to a stranger.
Want to nominate someone for Guardian Angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat to [email protected]