Frequently asked questions
Whether you're an organisation interested in setting up a similar service, or you'd like to learn more about our Walking Befriending Service, here are some details.
Why walking - what were the motivation and aims behind the project?
We identified that clients of our befriending service, even the most housebound, wanted more opportunities to go for a walk. Walking has amazing health benefits and is a great way to reintroduce physical activity into daily life, appealing to people who have not taken part in exercise for some time, were nervous about walking alone or did not feel ready to join the MK Walking for Health programme, where the shortest walks were a mile long.
For different reasons, clients of our Befriending service may not have the social connections they once had. They may experience barriers that prevent them from attending local activities, including having experienced a significant life event, such as bereavement or periods of ill health resulting in a lack of confidence. We wanted to find a way to introduce more physical activity to their lives in a way that was inclusive, flexible enough to adopt into their lives and would act as a gateway to enjoying more regular physical activity.
- The aims of the Walking Befriending service are to:
support inactive older people by introducing regular short walks into their weekly routine.
- increase the older person's social network by pairing them with a Walking Befriender.
- provide support and encouragement to help them improve their activity levels, wellbeing and connect with their local community.
address loneliness and isolation and help older people to regain their confidence.
Who is the service aimed at?
The service is for any older person (aged 55 and over) who would benefit from taking more physical activity; clients who have taken part have been aged between 58 and 96.
We have had a particular interest in helping older people who have recently experienced a significant life event and may be feeling lonely, or be at risk of isolation, because they don’t have many social connections or are separated from family.
Was the project focused within a geographical area?
Milton Keynes is a unitary authority, with one Council covering the borough of Milton Keynes. Age UK Milton Keynes provides services to older people solely within the borough, and it was the same for this service. We did, however, work with local parish and town councils in Milton Keynes to promote the service at a neighbourhood level, targeting areas where we had strong links with community organisations and focusing on areas with a higher older population to support volunteer and client recruitment.
Is there a charge for the service?
No. Walking Befriending is part of our Befriending Service and there is no cost to the client.
Does the service run all year round?
The service is ongoing and runs throughout the year. We find that take-up and engagement is naturally higher between March and October, when the weather is warmer and there are more hours of daylight. However, each pair of client and volunteer, will take a different approach with many being more than happy to continue walking throughout winter. We encourage people to keep their walk closer to the client’s home during the winter. We have identified areas for ‘sheltered walks’, such as our local shopping centres, that provide overhead cover and amenities (toilets, seating, places for refreshment) to ensure walks can continue. Also, because the walks are on a 1-2-1 basis, there is much more flexibility for the Walking Befriender to arrange an alternative time to avoid really bad weather.
Is there anyone who you don't recommend to take part?
Can someone sign up if they use a walking aid or mobility scooter, for example?
The project is for anyone looking to start or restart walking. We start small and stay very local to the client’s home initially to enable the client and befriender to get to know each other and to assess how far the client can walk. Because we start this way, the project is suitable for an older person who doesn’t get out much or may not have exercised for a while. Some of our clients use walking aids, including sticks and wheeled walkers, who are able to safely maintain the walking activity.
Our aim has always been to help older people improve their level of physical activity. Clients who use mobility scooters are welcome to join the service if they are able to transfer out and safely walk some distance during the befriending session. There may be a need to set smaller goals or targets to ensure the client can maintain the regular walking activity. In this case, there would need to be further assessment by the Co-ordinator before the first session.
What about people with dementia?
Do clients with dementia have to give consent, and have you had clients with behavioural problems?
As part of the registration process, the Co-ordinator completes a comprehensive form to record details of the client’s health. This provides the volunteer with an understanding of the barriers that may be preventing the client from going for a walk. We support clients who have mild to moderate dementia, some who live at home independently and others who live in sheltered or care accommodation.
Our clients with dementia would be in the early stage of the disease, so are generally able to answer the registration questions and surveys. If necessary, a partner or family member may wish to provide extra support at the start of the process, when the client and volunteer befriender are getting to know each other. Any changes to the client's health or issues that arise are reported to the Co-ordinator who will monitor the situation.
How many staff and volunteers did you need to run the service?
The structure of the service is fairly streamlined. The Befriending Co-ordinator manages the team of Walking Befrienders and has some volunteer admin support. We have around 70 Walking Befrienders, the majority having one Walking Befriending client, although some choose to have more than one client, depending on their availability and how much time they can give.
How did you recruit volunteers?
What was the selection process, did you require references and safeguarding checks?
We advertise all volunteer opportunities quite widely and encourage volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. For this project we did also target local walking groups, active older people’s community groups and our local VCSE organisation, Community Action MK, to promote the volunteer opportunity at intervals throughout the year, including during Volunteers Week in June and National Walking Month in May.
What qualities do volunteers need to have?
We are looking for people who are supportive and keen to play an active role in improving an older person’s quality of life. Walking Befrienders will understand the benefits of regular activity and will be willing to provide ongoing motivation to the older person. We need volunteers who are compassionate, good listeners and at times can act as a bridge between the client and the charity.
Volunteers may have other commitments and responsibilities, but we emphasise that they should be able to commit to visiting an older person for an hour, once a week. Many of our volunteers go over and above this and will make longer visits or walk more frequently. Clients often prefer visits on weekdays and in the daytime, which suits volunteers who are retired or work part-time, but weekend or early evening walks do take place.
Did you use new or existing befrienders?
Both. We contacted our existing befrienders to identify those who would be willing to take on new walking clients in addition to keeping their existing befriending client.
We found it was more successful to appeal for new volunteers, and were able to attract a new type of volunteer through this role – most volunteers are in their 50s and 60s, but walking befriending has helped attract younger volunteers.
What training would befrienders need to fulfil their role?
The setup of the service didn’t allow for us to train a batch of volunteers in one go, as each client comes to the charity and is allocated a volunteer at different times.
Staff members were given Health Walk training provide through our local authority, and from this developed a short training briefing as part of the volunteer pack. This pack outlines tips on how to motivate clients, things to be aware of on their walks and procedures in case of an emergency, put together to support the volunteer and for their reference throughout the process. At their first meeting the Co-ordinator highlights the key safety points the volunteer needs to consider, including what to do if the client has a fall, and the procedure to escalate any emergencies.
The volunteers packs contain:
- 3, 6 and 12 month forms to complete with their client
- befriending journal forms to complete following each walk
- walk training briefing and detailed risk assessment to highlight risks and potential hazards.
Basic Walk Leader training offered by Milton Keynes Council is available to volunteers who wish to gain added practical experience of leading a walk, including route planning for longer walks. Volunteers also receive in house training to help support the wider role.
We offer training to help volunteers make the most of each contact they have with the older person as they are potentially one of the few outside visitors a client may see. This includes:
- Introduction to Age UK Milton Keynes to tell them about other services and support that could assist the client
- Personal Safety - to support lone working
Safeguarding - to help volunteers spot issues with the potential to affect a client's welfare
How does the matching process work?
The Befriending Co-ordinator role is at the heart of ensuring matches made are successful. It is important to have a dedicated person whose role it is to follow the process from start to finish, from referral through to allocation.
Once the new volunteer is processed by the Volunteer Manager, the Befriending Co-ordinator makes contact to run through the Walking Befriending service, records important information about the volunteer including their background, interests, where they live, how far around the borough they are willing to travel, availability etc. – all essential information that makes the matching process easier.
Whether a client calls in to request the service themselves or is referred by a family member or local organisation, the Co-ordinator will speak with the client to first check their eligibility for the project, provide them with a brief overview of what to expect and to find out what their goals are. The Co-ordinator also asks about their needs and interests, mobility issues and when they would like to walk etc.
Based on the information both parties give, clients on the waiting list are matched with volunteers and a date is set for the first meeting between the volunteer, client and the Co-ordinator at the client’s home. Extra time is allocated before the meeting for the volunteer and Co-ordinator to go over the training highlights and information, and to complete a short walking assessment if the client uses a walking aid. The registration form is completed and a baseline survey is taken. The volunteer and client agree the date and time of the next walk, which is recorded by the Co-ordinator. The pair are now signed off to start their walks together.
How do you choose areas and places to walk?
Do you allow the volunteer to drive or take public transport to another location or do you start from client’s home?
We want the clients to embrace walking and experience the benefits of being more active and more regularly, so we encourage our volunteers to help plan and facilitate their walking experience. Early in the project, we learnt that clients wanted to enjoy scenic walks and points of interest in our local area, not just their immediate neighbourhoods. Milton Keynes has a great network of lakes, linear parks, canal walkways and green areas which provide flat, even paths for our clients.
If the client and volunteer wish to venture further afield, they can travel together to the location in the volunteer's vehicle (this is business use, covered under our insurance) or in some cases they will meet at an agreed location.
How did you promote the service?
As this was a new service we needed to promote it to raise awareness and encourage the recruitment of clients and volunteers. We publicised the service across social media platforms and on our website; Facebook was a great way to share photos and video clips once the project had begun, which helped us to reach a wider secondary audience, and led to new enquiries and attracted volunteers.
We encouraged referrals through our own services. The Social Prescribing and Hospital Aftercare services helped us to reach people who were particularly isolated or who were recovering from health problems. Promoting the service through GP networks, the local hospital and via our services that visit older people at home was also effective. Parish Council newsletters were also a good way to reach our target audience, particularly people who had had little contact with Age UK Milton Keynes.
We also worked in partnership with local organisations to promote the service widely, producing marketing materials to circulate and take out to community organisations and use when giving talks to community groups and at events.
The Co-ordinator arranged social events for volunteers to get together at The Peartree Centre throughout the year, to promote the service to the charity'ss new volunteers and to provide an opportunity for clients and their befrienders to socialise with each other.
What surveys and monitoring did you use to track beneficiaries?
We used three surveys to capture data about participants: Sport England Short Active Lives survey was used to track physical activity levels; ONS Loneliness survey was used to measure how clients recorded loneliness and we used the short WEMWEBS scale to track clients wellbeing. The baseline data was captured during client registration, then the surveys were repeated at three, six and 12 monthly intervals, carried out by the volunteer and sent back to the Co-ordinator.
The befriender journals provide additional qualitative feedback to support evaluation, tracking the walk, recording conversations and progress, and any issues that arose, following each walk. We aimed to make the process as easy as possible to encourage befrienders to provide feedback. Befrienders used the form as a template, but the information could be sent back via email, or voice recording as well.
We encouraged the volunteers to send in photos/selfies whilst out on their walks to show the locations they visited and to be used to promote the service.
Do you receive feedback from the client and volunteer separately?
We encourage clients and volunteers to give us feedback, in a way that best suits them. This can be via phone message, email, voice note or via a form on our website.
After their first walk, the Co-ordinator will contact both client and volunteer to find out it went and if any changes or adjustments need to be made. We find that befriending journals are a helpful way to remind volunteers of the role they are playing, and to encourage them to share how the client is progressing. It is encouraging to see clients who previously weren’t going for walks, now enjoying regular walks, increasing both the distance and length of the walk.
What advice would you give organisations looking to run a similar service?
- Start small, test the idea in a specific area to understand demand and how this affects recruitment of volunteers.
- Understand that for some older people progress might be slower; helping to set and work towards small goals will help keep the client focused and supported through the process.
Volunteer and client recruitment will be an ongoing process, but you may find it works better for your organisation to use existing volunteers and add in training targeted around walking.
We're always happy to talk to people about this fantastic service and can be contacted on 01908 550700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org