Dulwich resident Katharine St John - Brooks is Honorary President of much - loved local charity Link Age Southwark, which is 30 years old this year. Here, she reflects on what’s been achieved on behalf of local older people, and invites you to join in the birthday celebrations.

I feel so proud that Link Age Southwark has reached this significant birthday. We’re going to celebrate in many ways and are keen to use our events this year to reach new supporters. Our celebrations are very much focused on the wonderful people we support - Southwark’s older residents, and those living with a diagnosis of dementia and their carers.

How it all started

Link Age Southwark began life as two small charities: Southwark Churches Care, which operated in the centre of the borough, and Dulwich Helpline, located in the south. Both were started by local people who recognised a specific issue within their community: the loneliness and social isolation experienced by many of Southwark’s older residents. The main focus of their work was building friendships between older people and local volunteers. These befriending relationships - which are still at the core of what we do - involved volunteers visiting an older person weekly for a chat, a cup of tea, and the lucky ones get a slice of cake!

Evidence shows that loneliness leads to an increase in GP visits, earlier entry into residential care and is a contributor to depression. Over 9,000 older people live alone in Southwark and that figure is rising every year. Many of the older people whom we started out supporting - and whom we continue to support - saw few people during the week and looked on TV as being their main contact with the outside world.

Befriending undoubtedly contributes to reducing loneliness for older people. Our volunteers benefit from it too. Research by bodies like the NCVO has found that volunteers not only enjoy feeling they’ve made a difference, but also meet new people, feel less isolated, and report that volunteering has improved their mental health and wellbeing.

Alongside befriending, Southwark Churches Care and Dulwich Helpline gradually expanded their services to offer a variety of group activities, designed to encourage older people to socialise more and give them a reason to get out of their homes. In 2010, Dulwich Helpline approached Southwark Churches Care to discuss combining forces which led, in 2012, to a merger. In 2015, we changed our name to Link Age Southwark.

I first became involved with Dulwich Helpline after attending a wonderful fundraising concert, hosted by Andrew and Deborah Cullen, at Bell House. I was so impressed by the charity that I offered to donate some of the proceeds from opening our garden for the National Garden Scheme. Ted Salmon, the Chair, then invited me to become a trustee. I joined the Board in 2007, then becoming Chair from 2011 to 2018.

How it’s all going

Link Age Southwark has expanded significantly whilst remaining true to our vision of promoting friendly local communities where older people thrive. Our mission is to help older people stay connected with their communities, alleviating loneliness and social isolation, improving health and wellbeing and making communities stronger through volunteering. Over the past year, the charity has supported over 750 local residents, and more than 400 volunteers have given us over 24,000 hours of their time. Demand for our services continues to grow, particularly for befriending. The charity’s groups are also popular. They include exercise, social and activity groups plus specialist groups for those living with dementia. We now run several of them as a hybrid offer, allowing people to attend online or in person, making the groups more accessible to those who are housebound or may be having a difficult day. We also offer transport for those who are less mobile.

One of my favourite memories is what one of the older people said to me at a Christmas party: “Quite honestly, Link Age Southwark has made life worth living again.”

I’m also really proud of the recognition that Link Age Southwark’s work has received, such as the Southwark Stars Charity of the Year Award in 2017 and the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2018. I was honoured to go with Ruth Driscoll, the charity’s Director at the time, to a Buckingham Palace garden party to celebrate.

Now we are 30

Celebrating this milestone feels important. We want to honour all the volunteers and staff who have brought us to this point and elevate the voices of older people who can all too often be invisible in our society. But there is still so much to do and so many more people to help. I’d really like to encourage local people to remember the charity in their wills this year. It’s a wonderful way of helping to build a legacy. Other ways to support us include:

Sunset Soiree - this lovely annual event will take place this year in the grounds of Dulwich Picture Gallery on 15 July. It will feature a special exhibition of photographs that is being compiled for our 30th year as well as cocktails, canapés and live music.

Sponsored Strollathon - this inaugural, sponsored event will take place in Dulwich Park on 10 September. We are hoping for cross - generational participation and there will be walking distances to suit all participants. Our aim is to swamp the park with Link Age Southwark Strollathoners. I’ll be there. I hope you will too!

Pearls of Wisdom - we will create a short film based on reflections from our service users about their lives.

For details of our work and 30th anniversary events, visit our website: www.linkagesouthwark.org

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