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Meet Seniorline volunteer Stephen Dollard: providing a friendly voice

Posted on 17th April 2018

SeniorLine volunteer Stephen Dollard is a retired post-primary teacher. “I enjoyed the interaction with the children and seeing them progress. I also enjoyed the friendships with my colleagues. I particularly liked helping the weaker students, and seeing how with a bit of encouragement, they could walk out with more confidence,” he says.

Life is full and busy for Stephen. He continues to be involved in education by helping the next generation of teachers. He has worked with the Society of St Vincent de Paul for 45 years. This involves visitations one night a week and a monthly church collection. 

Four years ago, Stephen saw in his local parish newsletter that Senior Help Line - as it was then known - as was looking for volunteers, he applied, received training, and now takes calls at the Leopardstown centre on Sunday evenings every three weeks. “I thought it was something new, another way to help people, to offer my services, to listen and use some of my skills from my teaching days. You realise that people are lonely. You learn that many older people won’t go out that might do so. Many have no interaction on a Sunday other than perhaps going to church, and Sunday can be a very long day”. 

His role with Society of St Vincent de Paul has links with SeniorLine. “With SVP, you go in and listen to the problems that people want to tell you. Rather than saying, ‘I know what you need to do, you can’t do that’, you listen and work with them as best you can. I am gone past the stage when I thought I knew all the answers”, he says. Stephen said the definition of poverty has broadened greatly in recent years. “You have people coming to the Society for help today that we would never see in the past. But mortgages and rents have gone out of control. As a Society, we give of what we have. There is a tremendous amount of hardship, and some of it unaccounted for, because some people don’t come too us even if they need help,” he says.

What has life as a SeniorLine volunteer been like? “Enjoyable worthwhile, satisfying. It was initially frustrating if it was very quiet, and Sunday night, between eight and nine, could be very quiet. But then I realised that I am here from 7pm to 10pm, I am available should people want to call. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. You can’t force people to phone us. I also love the new friendships I have made with my Leopardstown colleagues.”

SeniorLine receive many calls from people who phone very frequently, and Stephen does not have a difficulty with such regular callers. “At this stage I am quite happy to talk to them and listen. As a rookie, I used to think we are not progressing here, I am hearing the same story I heard before, but, I now realise what is important is being there to listen when the phone rings. Sometimes a woman caller will wish to speak to a woman volunteer. If there is one on duty with me I pass the call on to her; otherwise I apologise and ask the caller to ring back tomorrow. We have to be mindful of a caller’s requests and not judge who they wish to speak to,” he says.  

“I agree with the philosophy of the service to listen to the caller and empower callers, if possible. It callers have a problem, they need help to solve it, but ultimately they need to take possession of the problem themselves and its solution. I have no right to tell anyone what to do. I might make a suggestion and say ‘have you thought about this?’, and give them some relevant information, but the ball is back in their court. The focus is on the caller, it’s not about us, let them tell their story without interruption. I sometimes signpost callers to other services such as the Citizens Information Service, Samaritans, VDP, if that seems appropriate.”

What insight has volunteering given into the lives of callers and older people in Ireland?  “I think some of them are quite lonely, sometimes they are afraid to go out at night due perhaps to their physical condition, they may have health problems, they may be short of money to buy food. Life is very tough for some of our callers, I am thinking of one caller who is very lonely and is very short of money.  She rang twice when I was on recently, such was her need for human contact. This is partly the stage of life that many older people are at – they need support of different kinds. It is something facing us all, will we be able to care for ourselves as we age, how much will be able to do for ourselves? Just one thought strikes me, and it would be about some  helpful programme linking St Vincent de Paul with SeniorLine, suggesting that some of older people we visit experiencing loneliness might ring SeniorLine”, he said. 

At government and policy level, Stephen suggests giving older people a more generous pension, and initiating a wider definition of the forms of domestic heating so that older people would qualify for the fuel allowance. In terms of promoting more social engagement among older people that could help their emotional health and wellbeing, he felt there could be funding from the Minister of State for Older People towards the promotion of Active Retirement Associations, and also better transport to enable older people attend meetings and local functions.  Finally, what skills does Stephen think he brings to SeniorLine? He laughs: “Perhaps listening, trying to tease out what the problem is, patience and empathy. You can never be 100% sure you have helped someone, so it is good when someone says  ‘thanks for your time’, ‘thanks for listening’, and the very least they have heard a friendly voice,” he says.

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