STEVE WATKINS, who volunteers as a dementia befriender, tells of the value he gets from the role as the number of people with the condition continues to increase


I WAS a boy when I first came across dementia. My grandmother had been in hospital for some time and my father had chosen, until then, to visit her alone.

I remember Gran pulling my father close when we got to her bedside and asking who I was in a voice shaking with confusion.

Adults appear invincible when you are young and, when these giants of your world stumble and fall, it is difficult to understand.

It was only years later I realised how heart-breaking it must have been for my father to see a person he loved slowly eroded by a condition for which there is no cure.

This experience was echoed more recently when I found my 94-year-old neighbour wandering outside in the small hours.

Rose didn’t know where she was, despite standing within sight of the flat she called home for more than 60 years.

She died in hospital two months later, as many do when taken from the familiarity and independence of their own home.

The death of this plucky widow, who’d survived two world wars, affected me and made me think about volunteering.

I had seen a poster asking for volunteers as part of an elderly befriending project.

I went to see the group, who said they needed volunteers who could visit older people in varying stages of dementia.

I was surprised by how much I initially recoiled from the suggestion and how deep-rooted and prejudiced my opinion of mental health was without realising it.

Thankfully, I signed up, despite being less saintly than I first thought.

A year later, that journey challenged a lot of my beliefs about care, compassion and mental illness.

The biggest surprise was Byron. This funny, engaging 74-year-old was not what I expected.

He had already spent several years in a care home and was in the early stages of vascular dementia but remained largely lucid.

Byron’s stubborn refusal to ‘sit and wait for the end’ made him one of the home’s real characters.

He was a natural prankster and his constant steam of jokes always made me laugh, including bemoaning the fact no-one got out of the care home unless it was feet first in an ambulance.

Thankfully, we proved that theory wrong when we made a break for the border.

It was a text book escape. We hopped on a bus and spent the next hour seeing the sights. It was nothing out of the ordinary for me, but for Byron it was a rare chance to see the outside world.

I realised it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference to someone’s life and I enjoyed my weekly visits as much as he did.

Volunteering made me more patient and understanding. I have learned the value of listening, as well as realising that action speaks louder than words and that we often find excuses for not doing things instead of excuses for doing them.

Many of us express how dissatisfied we are with our jobs because there is little sense of contribution or making a difference. Volunteering is a small but important way of meeting that need.

It doesn’t have to be grand or noble or involve anything more than an hour or two a week. It’s about helping others and, in an odd way, helping yourself too.

If you are interested in volunteering, you can go to or