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Emma Donnan Befriender

"I don’t actually know why I picked up the Age UK befriending leaflet in the doctor’s surgery back in January 2016, or what made me push ahead with an application. I’ve no shortage of hobbies, work commitments, and friends and enjoy nothing more than socialising. Maybe that was what touched a nerve - the idea that life circumstances had stripped someone of that valuable contact with other humans. Or maybe I just thought I was doing my bit. 

Either way, within weeks I was paired up with Ann Walsh, then 78 years old to my 36 years, with the scheme coordinator telling me she thought our love of animals would give us an initial connection.

Sure enough, it was an early talking point, and a thread that continued through our friendship - she would tell me about the latest adventures of her cats and reminisce about past pets, and I would save up tales of my wildlife rescues as a volunteer with Tiggywinkles, and bring my dogs around for a visit. 

I’d worried that the conversation would dry up, that we would exhaust the obvious topics within a few weeks, and initially did try and think of talking points before I popped round. But they were never needed - the chat just always flowed. 

From Ann’s end, whether it was stories from her life in Ireland as an evacuee during the war, anecdotes from working on the London buses and in Heathrow Airport security, or reminiscences of the impressive - and not-so-impressive behaviour - of her suitors over the years, there was always a story she could pluck from the past to entertain, mixed in amongst the more day-to-day conversations about carers, what was for dinner, or the latest happenings on CSI Miami. 

On the one hand, we saw life in a similar way and had the same values, but equally she had many views and societal expectations that differed from mine, reflective of another generation. When I was going through low moments in life, my friends would often dole out very similar advice, but Ann would inevitably see things from a different viewpoint, and offer an alternative perspective. Many the time as soon as I sat in my usual chair in her cosy living room, she’d announce she had been mulling over something I’d said on a previous visit, and had some new thoughts and advice she wanted to offer up. 

In the first few years of my visits, Ann was able to get out of the house with some planning, and I joined her and her nephew Paul for meals out on quite a few occasions. They were lovely evenings, and the easy Irish patter had a warmth to it that it was great to be part of, so it was a real shame when declining health meant that leaving home was no longer an option. 

It was tough to see her constantly ensconced in the same armchair, no longer motivated to change out of pyjamas for the day, with failing eyesight that limited her activities, and left her almost entirely reliant on the carers who were around every few hours. But the feisty spirit, cheeky smile, sharp mind and spark in her eye was still there by the bucket loads. 

The last time I saw Ann in December, she told me about Christmas in Ireland as a child. It was a quick visit on a lunch break from work and is always the case in these situations I wish I’d stayed for longer, not knowing this was the last chance I would have available to listen to her stories about the walks through the cold crisp winter air to mass on Christmas eve, and the simplicity of the presents. 

She had battled through so many hospital visits that when she unexpectedly passed away one early morning soon after, it seemed peaceful, but surreal. The Catholic funeral, with Irish music and donations to an animal charity, a fitting tribute. 

Looking back, I suppose I went into the scheme envisaging that I was doing my bit for charity by helping someone else, but that idea quickly became obsolete and patronising. In reality we gave something to each other - fresh eyes on the world, and a unique friendship, that will stay with me forever." 

RIP, Ann Walsh, 1937-2022 

By Emma Donnan, Age UK Bucks befriending volunteer

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