Bicester resident Derek Needham who is almost totally blind and struggles to leave his home has overcome loneliness and isolation by connecting with others on the telephone.
The 68-year-old Sanctuary Housing resident lost his sight in his left eye back in 2001 and is now suffering from severe cataracts in his right eye, leaving him unable to see anything beyond ‘blurry shapes’.
Coupled with panic attacks and agoraphobia that have left him all but unable to leave his house alone, Derek says he became very lonely despite the support of his family.
But things turned around when he was referred to the Phone Friends scheme run by Age UK Oxfordshire with funding from Sanctuary Housing.
The scheme puts lonely people in touch with trained volunteers to chat on the phone on a weekly basis.
Derek found the chats with his phone friend, Jenny, so inspiring that he has now signed up to become a volunteer himself – recently leaving the house to undergo training to enable him to call others in need of some companionship.
Before Phone Friends, Derek, who has four children and has been a stay-at-home dad, had little outside companionship.
His impaired vision and difficulties leaving the house meant his only regular human contact was with his youngest son Stacy, 28, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and lives with Derek, along with daily phone calls and weekly visits from his daughter, Lisa.
Derek is sharing his story as part of national Housing Day which has the theme ‘Real People, True Stories’.
Up until a few years ago Derek was very active, enjoying being outdoors and always busy in the garden. Winning a ‘best garden’ competition for local residents seven years ago remains one of his proudest achievements.
But things changed very quickly as his vision declined.
Soon, besides his children, Derek found he only had the TV or radio for company, which he says is “not the same as human company but better than nothing”.
Derek said: “I have always been a very active person. But when the sight in my right eye deteriorated it very quickly took over. I just see blurred shapes now.
“A few years ago I started suffering from panic attacks. It became an effort and a struggle to leave the house. As time went by I started to go out less and less. When I did go out, I think that the agoraphobia took over from the panic attacks.”
But his weekly Phone Friends chats have made a real difference.
Derek explained: “The chats on the phone have been very valuable to me. I don’t get out, certainly not on my own, and before I would just sit here and listen to the TV or radio.
“Now Jenny calls me every Monday and we have a little bit of a chat. We talk about the gardening, the weather and just put the world to rights for a little while.”
He also realised that being on the other end of a phone was something that he could do for others.
“I thought I could help others in the same way that the scheme has helped me,” Derek said.
“I can sit here with a cup of tea and bring a little bit of sunshine into people’s lives.
“I was very nervous going to the training, but once I got going there was no stopping me.”
As part of his training Derek chatted to a 91-year-old lady who he learned was part of a team manning the huge searchlights that shone over the country during the Blitz in World War Two.
Derek added: “The fun part of it is getting to know the person. The conversation gave me as much pleasure as it gave her.
“Once you start talking you can just connect with someone and I hope the people I will be talking to will come to think of me as a friend.”
And Derek, who has lived in his Sanctuary home since the 1970s, says it is fantastic that the housing provider is backing community projects such as Phone Friends.
“People can get lonely. I am fortunate as my son lives with me and my daughter calls and visits but there are some people out there with nobody at all,” Derek said.
“It is such a simple idea but it makes a real difference.”