60 years of friend visitor activities – demand for volunteer friends remains high

Joonas Brandt
Image: Joonas Brandt

The Finnish Red Cross has been providing lonely people wth volunteer friends for 60 years now. Every year, the services of volunteer friends are requested by tens of thousands of people suffering from loneliness.

The idea behind the Finnish Red Cross’s friend visitor activities, which are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, has remained the same since their inception: to bring together those in need of a friend and volunteers who wish to serve as friends.

Based on the demand for friend visitor activities, it would seem that loneliness is just as prevalent in Finland as it was decades ago, if not more so.

There is a constant shortage of volunteers in friend visitor activities, and the queue of people in need of a friend is long. In 2018, the number of volunteer friends was approximately 8,200, while the number of people requesting a friend was approximately 25,000.

The Red Cross’s friend visitor activities first started in the 1950s in the form of club activities for the elderly, the aim of which was to help older people dispel depressing feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Although friend visitor activities have since been significantly expanded to young people, immigrants, inmates and online activities as well, the elderly are still the most frequent requesters of volunteer friends.

Volunteer friends are a source of irreplaceable support for many

A survey targeted at people who had been provided with a friend via friend visitor activities conducted in late 2018 by the Finnish Red Cross revealed that encounters with volunteer friends alleviate feelings of loneliness, refresh the mind and are looked forward to.
According to the survey, the most common reasons for seeking friend visitor activities besides loneliness were a reduced ability to function and old age. The impact of friend visitor activities was particularly positive on those who need help the most, i.e. those living assisted at home or in sheltered homes.
– The majority of the Red Cross’s friend visitor activities consist of visiting the elderly, talking with them and helping them with everyday matters, such as going to the store or spending time outdoors. We are proud of how meaningful friend visitor activities are for lonely people and want to invest in the training of new volunteers in the future as well, says the Finnish Red Cross’s Secretary General Kristiina Kumpula.
The demand for friend visitor activities and the results of the recent survey indicate that many elderly people living alone do not receive sufficient everyday care and support. The volunteers participating in friend visitor activities can also sometimes feel that their responsibility for the well-being of the elderly people they visit is greater than their role would warrant.
– Volunteer work is a good form of support alongside basic services, but it can never serve as a substitute for basic care. Supporting the elderly must not be left up to the third sector, says Kumpula.

Volunteer friends thanked by the President of the Republic

The 60th anniversary of friend visitor activities was celebrated last weekend in Paviljonki in Jyväskylä. The celebration included a greeting by President Sauli Niinistö, during which he thanked the volunteers participating in friend visitor activities and reminded listeners about the importance of taking other people into consideration.

– Everyone can work towards alleviating loneliness. A friendly word, taking another person into consideration or a shared cup of coffee are all valuable actions, Niinistö reminded people.