Working to combat New Zealand’s loneliness epidemic, Dinner Together matches volunteers with elderly people for a cup of tea and a spot of dinner.
When Katie Brown was tasked with ringing Wainuiomata locals to check if they had their voting papers, she didn’t anticipate having her heart shattered into tiny pieces. But that’s exactly what happened. “The older people that I called really wanted to stay on the line and have a chat. When I asked them what mattered to them, they all told me that nobody had really bothered to ask them before. It hurt to know that this was the first time these people had been asked about their opinions on a community that they’ve lived in and loved for so many years.”
It was that revelation that inspired her to set up Dinner Together, an online platform to connect people in the community in need of a cup of tea, a meal, or just a chat. Because after her stint on the campaign trail, the Korokoro local was unable to shake the feeling that society was leaving behind some of its most valuable members. Whether it was the story of the community banding together to build the Wainuiomata swimming pool, or the surprising concern for getting “better shops and nicer clothes” in town, she found a well of local history and perspectives.
“They were stoked to tell me their stories, and I just couldn’t help but ask: who is listening to these people? Why are they so isolated? Why are we not looking after these people that have built our world?”
Volunteering with a local knitting group, Brown began to get some answers to those questions. “One day, a woman said to me that she had lived in Naenae for 10 years and hadn’t met anyone new. But that day she was feeling particularly confident, so she walked down to the knitting group because she saw it on Facebook.” The access that older people have to social media is something that is often overlooked, says Brown, and is a network that can be better harnessed to connect them in real life.
Brown began brainstorming some ways that technology could bridge the loneliness gap. “I was thinking of something like Adopt a Nan, or Tinder for Nanas, but that felt a bit insensitive,” she says. During her research, she stumbled across Mealmakers, an initiative in Scotland that brings together elderly folk and their neighbours to cook a meal and have a chat. “A few of my friends offered to help if I needed it, so I said ‘stuff it’ and we built the Dinner Together website in a couple of days.”
The concept is simple: you cook a meal and share it with an older person in your community in their own home. At the moment, Dinner Together is working with Age Concern to find participants in the regions who are keen for a visitor. “Visiting them at their place is important,” says Brown, “because that’s a comfortable place.” From the initial visit, you can set up regular dates and get an idea of what they need from you – if anything. “It’s just thinking about little ways that we can help, whether it’s picking up groceries or making a cup of tea,” says Brown.
The goal is to combat the rise in loneliness among the elderly, a trend that has come about due to a number of factors. “The price of housing hasn’t been helpful,” says Brown. “I also think people don’t like reaching out for help when they’ve spent their whole lives being independent.” During her time working for ACC, she saw the way that social isolation can contribute to other problems. “Older people falling over at home is a really big problem, so if we encourage people to pop in to see their neighbours, to help them with odd jobs, we could help with that.”
There has been a lot of interest from volunteers across the country already, with talk of eventually extending the focus beyond the elderly. “I think people do feel isolated more these days, and it can be just as helpful for the people reaching out as it is for those receiving the company,” says Brown, who tries to split her time evenly between contract work and volunteering. “Tell you what: donating your time to your community makes you feel really good. Surrounding yourself with nice, appreciative people is about the best feeling there is.”
As we approach the end of the year, it’s no mistake that Dinner Together has launched right before Christmas. “I really want people out there to think about the older people in their own lives for a start,” says Brown. “I’m happy if all it does in inspire them to visit their grandparents, or visit their neighbour that they haven’t seen in a while.” Whether it’s a phone call, a knock on the door or a cup of tea, there’s a lot to be learned from the older people in your neighbourhood. But, for Brown, it boils down to something even simpler.
“It’s just about being kind, really. The more people we can get to look up off their phones and out into the community, the better.”
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