Meeri and Tiina – A Friend with a Capital 'F' Found through the Red Cross Friend Visitor Activities

A volunteer and an older person sit around a table and smile. The volunteer has a little dog on their lap.
Photo: Leena Koskela / Suomen Punainen Risti

Meeri Sahlman and Tiina Kaakkolahti met through the Finnish Red Cross friendship service. Although their friendship has only spanned a few years, they have already experienced and shared a tremendous amount of things.

The sun sets behind the northeast Helsinki senior apartment window in the early part of the year.

On the wall of the apartment hangs a picture of Meeri Sahlman, a 76-year-old resident of the one-bedroom unit, depicting her childhood home in Pielisjärvi. In the yard of the light-coloured house stands a smoke sauna, where Sahlman was born.

This marked the beginning of Sahlman's quite eventful life. Despite commendable school grades, the young woman's desire led her from the forests of North Karelia to the wider world.

“I didn't enjoy it there. At the age of 15, I left for Sweden with my sister,” Sahlman recounts.

However, Sahlman quickly returned from Sweden to Finland and ended up in Lahti working as a home assistant. At the age of 16, she began to crave change and switched to working in a small shop.

When I retired, Kauppaneuvos (Finnish honorary title) brought me ten long-stemmed roses. Lovely!

From Lahti, the path led to Helsinki to work as a babysitter and attend evening business school, where Sahlman once again received excellent grades. Her career in the commerce sector continued, and before retiring, Sahlman worked at the checkout for Helsinki Cooperative.

“When I retired, Kauppaneuvos (Finnish honorary title) brought me ten long-stemmed roses. Lovely!” Sahlman reminisces.

Along the way, in addition to work, there have been two children and five grandchildren, with whom Sahlman shares warm relationships. And, of course, the love of Sahlman's life, with whom she spent about twenty years together.

He passed away from cancer ten years ago.

Friend and Canine Companion

The coffee water is boiling in the kettle, and Meeri Sahlman's friend, Tiina Kaakkolahti, 56, is setting up refreshments on the table.

Kaakkolahti hails from Jyväskylä, but after studies in Turku, she now resides in Helsinki. Currently, she works as an HR director in a real estate company.

Kaakkolahti's family includes a spouse and a Parson Russell Terrier named Edi, who is, once again, accompanying her.

Before becoming a volunteer friend, Kaakkolahti had been active in the Voluntary Rescue Service Vapepa, coordinated by the Finnish Red Cross. Her search and rescue hobby continues, and the playful Edi is also intended to be trained as a search and rescue dog.

Since the first meeting, it has been easy to be with each other

The friendship between Sahlman and Kaakkolahti began in 2021 when Kaakkolahti, who had completed the Finnish Red Cross’s basic course on friend activities, signed up to become a volunteer friend at the local branch in Herttoniemi, Helsinki.

Sahlman, who was living in Herttoniemi and feeling lonely, had previously sought a friend from the branch.

“I got a call from the branch and said they had found someone,” Sahlman recalls.

“Then I came to visit, and everything started. Since the first meeting, it has been easy to be with each other. It wasn't in any way artificial,” Kaakkolahti adds.

Since the first meeting, it has been easy to be with each other.

Sahlman and Kaakkolahti meet each other almost weekly and also talk frequently on the phone. Kaakkolahti usually comes to visit Sahlman after her work day.

The friends might go for a walk or take care of errands at the shopping centre around the corner. Coffee and tea, as well as catching up on the evening news, are also part of the routine.

With a good friend, you don't have to start from square one

Although Sahlman and Kaakkolahti have enjoyed each other's company from the beginning, their friendship has also deepened over time. The friends can talk about everything.

“When you get to know someone, it adds depth. You don't have to start from square one, asking where one is in life,” Kaakkolahti describes.

Meeri, Tiina och Edi the dog.
Meeri Sahlman (left) and Tiina Kaakkolahti (right) meet each other about once a week. Kaakkolahti's dog, Edi, is also a welcome guest to Sahlman. Photo: Leena Koskela / Finnish Red Cross

“We have the same age difference as I do with my oldest son. In fact, I could be Tiina's mother,” Sahlman laughs.

“Maybe there's also that woman-to-woman dynamic. We understand each other,” Kaakkolahti adds.

Faithfully By Each Other's Side

A striking phase in Kaakkolahti and Sahlman's friendship occurred when Sahlman was hospitalised shortly after her 75th birthday.

After several hospital stays, she eventually moved to an assisted living facility, where she currently resides.

Kaakkolahti continues to visit, even though Sahlman's new home is farther away than her previous residence.

“It was of course clear that I would start visiting here too. The Herttoniemi branch contacted me, suggesting closer options, but I stated that I will visit Meeri,” Kaakkolahti explains.

“Tiina has faithfully continued to visit, whether I was in the hospital or had moved,” praises Sahlman.

“However, I always tell Tiina to take care of her own matters first! Like a mother would say,” she adds.

Tiina has faithfully continued to visit.

Fortunately, the assisted living facilty offers a lot of activities, which suits the active Sahlman.

“There's something happening here from ten to three every day. There's knitting, reading, sing-alongs, bingo, all sorts of things like that. When I talked to my son, he said, 'Take a lunch break occasionally!'” Sahlman laughs.

Sahlman has also kept in touch with a childhood schoolmate in North Karelia.

“I give her a call, and we spoke for an hour on Epiphany. Our friendship has continued since we were little kids,” Sahlman explains.

“It's wonderful to know that Meeri's days are filled with events and conversations,” says Kaakkolahti.

Grateful for Each Other

Despite the busy lives that both Sahlman and Kaakkolahti have, their friendship holds a very special place in both of their hearts.

“I've never had vast, expansive circles of friends. Somehow, I feel that quality outweighs quantity. And I find it so wonderful that I have Meeri as a friend. My life has been enriched by having a friend with a different life experience,” Kaakkolahti says.

“Our friendship feels truly wonderful. Tiina is a friend with a capital 'F'!” Sahlman praises.

My life has been enriched by having a friend with a different life experience.

Both of them feel that they have gained a lot from the Finnish Red Cross friend activities.

“ I have to say that it's wonderful that such friend visitor service exists,” Kaakkolahti summarises.

“I agree. I've been trying to tell the other residents of the facility to dare to pick up the phone too!” Sahlman says.

This article was originally written by Ilkka Oikku for issue 1/2024 of the Red Cross Avun maailma magazine. The full article is available in the print version of the magazine and for free in the digital version on Lehtiluukku (in Finnish and Swedish).