The Sharp End: Charity volunteer for a day

Dave Waller joins Age UK to take a veteran of the Second World War out for the day.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm a charity volunteer this month, offering my excuse for youthful vitality to 'older people' at the Kensington and Chelsea branch of Age UK. God help them.

As part of the prep, I'm sent an email detailing our visit to a Mr C, who's 86. It reads like a brief from Mission: Impossible. 'Task: Escort him by bus 70 to the Science Museum for the Alan Turing exhibition.' There's no mention of the message self-destructing in five seconds. I guess they don't want it to set off a dicky ticker.

I can think of worse ways to earn a volunteer's wage. At the area HQ, volunteer co-ordinator Martin Burke tells me they have a whopping 391 volunteers on the system, helping nearly 5,000 active members. Martin says to take that volunteer figure with a pinch of salt. 'Seventy per cent of those will be unavailable,' he says. It sounds like gym membership: people just sign up to feel better about themselves.

Martin dishes out the materials explaining Age UK's services, everything from gardening to grocery shopping outings. I'm paired up with Jeremy, an engaging 38 year-old on a career break from management in the software industry. He's been making two or three Age UK visits a week for over a year, all for no moolah. 'I suppose I'm mid-30s, no wife, no kids and I've done well enough to not have to worry too much about working,' he says. 'Plus, I just like volunteering. You get a lot more out of it than you put in.'

I've heard this before. I'm more inclined to believe it once I learn that fundamental care such as cutting octogenarian toenails is reserved for Age UK's pros. It turns out Mr C doesn't need any of that anyway. Yes, he makes a tentative descent down the 40 steps from his flat, leaning heavily on Jeremy, but if a strong handshake and sharpness of thought are a judge of anything then it's me, a man 50 years his junior, who's the one in need of care.

We walk to the bus stop and it's clear why Mr C is using the services of what used to be called Age Concern: I'm concerned by the age it takes him to walk anywhere. London suddenly seems dangerously fast-paced as he shuffles his frail bones along, with traffic, kerbsides and idiots endangering him at each careful step. 'I've come to realise I'm winding down,' Mr C says. 'It's something you get used to.'

We take the priority seats on the bus and he tells me about Willesden Cemetery. Recently he was visiting the grave of a friend there when he took his first fall, and lay there unable to move and with nobody around to help him. 'Well,' he reasoned to himself, 'if I go here then at least they won't have to move me very far.' He eventually got upright again by leaning on a statue, which he describes as his 'marble angel'. He laughs at the memory.

It doesn't sound too funny to me, but these old boys are clearly built of stronger stuff. Mr C eagerly tells us how he wants to get out today, his sixth use of the service this year, to pay his respects to Turing, the man credited with shortening WWII by breaking the Enigma code used by the Germans U-boats in the Atlantic, where Mr C was stationed. 'That wasn't the only code he broke,' says Mr C with a smile, alluding to Turing's homosexuality.

At the museum, videos of bombing raids bring a visible shudder. Over tea, I ask him about the war. 'It's best not to think about it,' he says. He still can't believe it all happened.

Today such unpleasantness is limited to memory. But Jeremy says this volunteer lark isn't always so easy. He once escorted a frail old man to hospital to visit his critically ill life partner. The sick man died an hour later. On another occasion he had to escort a woman to hospital to have a colonoscopy. Jeremy has also lost three good friends, whose latter days he helped improve. That's when you're dealing in tears, not museum tickets.

At the end of the day, Mr C squashes my hand in another shake. He's clearly been buoyed by this day of tea and talking. It goes both ways: Jeremy reckons that now he's removed the financial element from work, other more powerful motivations have been revealed. He often finds himself staying far longer than he intended, just because he's bonding with someone. And me? I have a date with a computer: I have another deadline to meet.

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