Sheila And Sharon Banner
Sheila And Sharon Banner

“There’s Friendship in the Air”

97-year-old Sheila has, in her own words, “lived a long, full, and interesting life.”

Yet two years ago – amidst the loneliness and isolation of ongoing, pandemic-enforced lockdowns – there was something missing from it: friendship.

So when ellenor introduced Sheila to Sharon – one of the Kent- and Bexley-based hospice charity’s Befrienders – it was the start of something beautiful.

This is the story of their friendship

Though Sheila and Sharon didn’t have their first conversation together until 2021, both had long – yet distinctly different – histories with ellenor.

Sheila’s ellenor journey began in the 1990’s, when she started volunteering for the hospice charity. A woman of many talents, Sheila juggled her role in ellenor’s reception alongside duties in the clinical admin team, as well as rounding up other volunteers to come and help. Plus, when the need arose, pitching in in ellenor’s kitchen, too.

“I did everything!” Sheila reminisces, smiling. “Because I enjoyed it so much.”

Sheila was still volunteering with ellenor when she was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes. And the woman who had given so much back to ellenor (Sheila received a long service badge for more than a decade of volunteering) came under its wing as a patient.

As for Sharon, her connection with ellenor also began with a diagnosis when her husband Peter was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004. ellenor stepped in, supporting the family from their home in the local community for the last two months of his life.

Like many locals, Sharon – who’s lived in Gravesend since 1997 – knew of ellenor. But it wasn’t until her family needed the hospice’s support that she gained a wider understanding of the wealth of services it provides.

“ellenor gave us excellent support,” Sharon remembers. “The nurses administered syringe drivers for him, helped get beds and carers lined up. They supported us, as a family, too.”

The quality of the care Sharon’s family received from ellenor made its mark. Because when 16 years later, Sharon – who already had vast voluntary experience at a similar charity, MacMillan – was looking for a different volunteer role, ellenor was the first name on her list.

And, in 2020, Sharon became a Befriender with ellenor.

The free service is available for both patients and carers. Befrienders like Sharon visit them, from the comfort of wherever they live in the local community, to lessen any feelings of isolation and loneliness they might experience – and provide welcome company.

“A lot of people who live on their own are lonely,” Sharon explains, “and they need communication. Everyone does, in whatever way: whether it’s face to face, or over the telephone. For me, everyone needs to know that there’s someone out there who cares.”

When Sharon became a Befriender with ellenor, lockdown laws were still in place. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to range, people were stuck at home – and, for those not living with family or friends, it was a lonely, isolating time.

In 2021, Sharon was introduced to Sheila – and the two hit it off immediately. In April, they had their first phone call – calls which have taken place, every week, ever since.

“We chat about all sorts of different things,” Sharon explains. “Family, work, problems – and where Sheila can go to sort them out. Basically, anything she wants to talk about, we talk about. Sometimes, she doesn’t feel like talking too much – that’s fine too. I still check in to see how she is, and she’s always grateful.”

“As a Befriender, you do get close to people; we look forward to speaking every week.”

Sheila agrees. “Sharon is a great help. When COVID-19 started, I was very lonely; very unhappy not being able to see anyone. I was crying; but I didn’t let anyone know.

“The Befriending service has been amazing. Even a phone call – it makes such a difference. Knowing that somebody cares for me. Anyone – and I mean everyone! – can benefit from having that voice at the other end of the line. Or having someone drop in to say hello. It doesn’t have to be long – even a knock at the door; a little chat. It means so much.”

It helps that Sharon is an excellent listener. “I like to listen to the person,” she explains, “because it is the person; it’s time and space for them to offload anything they’re worried about. You just listen to them; let them do that.”

Sheila smiles. “Sharon doesn’t mind if I only say a few words at a time. But it’s nice, sometimes, just to be spoken to. It’s that kindness and understanding you need more than anything else; and it goes such a long way.”

Sharon is also a Befriender to three other women, all of whom benefit from the closeness and camaraderie of the conversations. With one patient it’s a weekly phone call, with another it’s a house visit. For yet another – who has Multiple Sclerosis, and finds talking difficult – it’s a fortnightly text message. 

So what does the role give back – to her?

“It’s a privilege to hear their stories; to share their lives,” says Sharon. “I feel honoured to listen to Sheila’s stories from when she was a nurse, and about everything she’s achieved over the course of her long life. I’m just in awe of everything she’s done: first volunteering for ellenor, and now receiving the charity’s help and support.

“It’s beautiful, and it goes to show how much ellenor cares for people in general – whether they’re old or young, ill or not, ellenor still cares. And because I had ellenor’s help back in 2003, I’m giving something back, too. I’m thanking ellenor, in a way, for what they did for me and my family – for my husband – all those years ago.”

Beyond that, though, Befriending gives Sharon – who had to give up work 12 years ago due to arthritis – something deeper; something more profound. A purpose.

Sharon says, simply: “It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”

As the two speak about their friendship, the warmth they feel for each other – and the ease each has in one another’s presence – is obvious. As are the pair’s strong feelings about the charity that brought them together.

“There’s something about ellenor that just draws you to it,” Sheila explains. “I told someone, once, that the best place is right here at ellenor – that you come in, and you’ll be right at home. I’ve seen many people who are sad or worried when they arrive. But when you’ve been here a day, that worry is gone – and you come out feeling marvellous.”

“The place gives you a good feeling – there’s friendship in the air.”

Sharon and Sheila are two women with a lot in common. Both have faced down horrifying diagnoses with bravery and optimism. Both have a strong, warm sentiment for – and longstanding associations with – ellenor. And now, thanks to just that, they have something else. Something you can’t put a price on; something that can never be taken away.

A friendship.

Interested in becoming a Befriender? Find out how you volunteer here.