Volunteers with the Macmillan Carmarthenshire Buddy Service are adapting their hands-on approach during the coronavirus pandemic and taking to their telephones to offer vital support to people living with cancer.
The award-winning volunteer service, which is run by Macmillan Cancer Support, began in 2014 and matches community volunteers with people with cancer.
The service normally offers face-to-face emotional and practical support and can involve anything from a cuppa and a chat, to helping with day-to-day tasks such as light housework, gardening or getting people to appointments.
People with cancer who need this vital community support are usually referred in the first instance, by professionals working in health and social care.
There are 26 Buddies, many of whom are now themselves self-isolating, but continuing to offer support to people in their community living with cancer.
The coronavirus lockdown has meant that volunteers have had to quickly adapt their usual ways of direct support to make sure people living with cancer continue to be helped.
One special volunteering relationship that has been affected by the pandemic is that of volunteer Buddy Paula Clarke and 94-year-old Henrietta Hughes (Hetty) from Llanelli.
Every Tuesday afternoon, Paula would normally visit Hetty, who is housebound and lives alone but is supported by a team of carers.
Hetty has been living with skin cancer for several years and has just recently finished radiotherapy treatment. Hetty has been told that she won’t be offered any further treatments for her cancer.
On Tuesday afternoons, the pair would normally go into town for a bit of shopping and a coffee in Hetty’s favourite café where she would often meet with other friends.
Talking about the support that she is currently receiving, Hetty said: “Paula phones me and I can call her. We can’t go out, but I can tell her my troubles and talk to her about anything. I think she’s marvellous.
“I’m 94 and life is a bit different. I don’t go out that much, but I can when I am in the wheelchair. It’s nice to be sociable, and we have a great laugh together.“
Paula said: “Hetty likes meeting people and I know that she is missing our Tuesday afternoon meet-up, but Hetty is very pragmatic. She knows that the priority for everyone is staying safe. I still call her though to find out how she is, although she would rather ask about me and how my family are doing.
“She tells me that she’s used to being alone and that – apart from missing my weekly visit and her trip into town – the lockdown hasn’t really changed that much for her.
“And that is sometimes what it is like to be a Buddy, because right now, it feels like Hetty is helping me get through the lockdown as much as I am helping her.
“It was Hetty’s birthday at the end of March, and I desperately wanted to drop off my card and present on her doorstep, but Hetty said “No, don’t do that, you can give it to me later when we can meet up. My birthday is just postponed!”
“She’s a real diamond.”
Another Carmarthenshire Buddy is Shirley Jones, who lives in Ammanford, and has been a Buddy since late 2018.
Shirley supports two people with cancer, who she would normally visit on a weekly basis. Since lockdown Shirley has taken to the phone to offer her support.
“Both my service users are gents, and while they don’t necessarily want to have long chats with me, they do know that I am there for them and that I can support them.
“For me personally, it’s so important that I keep my role as a Carmarthenshire Buddy going. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I would feel that I have abandoned them. You can’t do that if you’re supporting people.”
Richard Pugh, Head of Partnerships for Macmillan Cancer Support in Wales, said: “We are immensely proud of our Carmarthenshire Buddy volunteers and the invaluable support that they are so determined to offer people living with cancer in their communities, even in these hugely challenging times.
“People living with cancer are facing months of self-isolation and increased anxiety about the impact that the current pandemic will have on their diagnosis, treatments and general health, so the friendship and the emotional support that our Buddies offer is very important.
“Right now, the support offered to people by Macmillan is needed more than ever before, but this comes at a time when we also face a significant drop in our income.
“The coronavirus crisis has created a number of severe, immediate and unique challenges for people with cancer, and to make sure we can help them through all this, we also need the public to continue helping us through their fundraising support.
“Donations are essential if we are to make sure our nurses, welfare benefit advisers, information services and support line can continue to help people living with cancer.”