RNIB's Talk and Support telephone befriending service has been available to blind and partially sighted people for 20 years. We meet three people who continue to use the service and find out about their experiences.
"People really look forward to joining their group each week. Although they don’t necessarily meet up with these people, they become friends," she says. "It’s like a little family, they just can’t wait to catch up with each other."
Suzanne began working with RNIB in 2017 as a volunteer after being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. While conversations don't always relate exclusively to sight loss, Suzanne hails the benefits of being able to talk to people who understand the impact it can have.
"You don’t fully appreciate something unless you’re experiencing it yourself," she says. "So, the participants just look forward to sharing and everybody knows where they’re coming from. It’s a fantastic source of support.
"Some people don’t get to speak to anybody from one day to the next so they feel that their group is a lifeline.
I think it’s a marvellous service, I’ve become quite passionate about my job!
"The service aims to meet the needs of everyone who might like to use it by offering a variety of groups. Our service is pretty unique, in that anybody from the age of 18 can join – we even had somebody in a group of age 104, so there’s no age limit."
“We talk about a lot of different things and hear from people with varied approaches to life,” Arthur says. “You get a different view on things.”
The support and companionship the groups offer is important to Arthur who is 100 years old and has age-related Macular Degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma.
“You get to know everyone over time and it feels just like a group of old friends,” he says. “Being part of the group has been a support for me, I tend to be lonely at times and this is meeting people socially, which we’ve done all our lives.
“The group changes over time. We talk about almost anything, I often wonder how we get from one subject to another! It’s just like half a dozen people meeting in a room and chatting.”
I will certainly carry on with the Talk and Support group for as long as I can
Arthur attributes the success of the groups to individuals like Suzanne who facilitate the discussion making sure everyone is included.
“I think the character of the Talk and Support groups seems quite specific, and a lot of it is to do with the facilitator,” he says. “It’s a very skilful thing I think to facilitate a group so that everybody gets their turn, and everybody feels relaxed enough to just talk when they feel like it.
"All of our groups have trained volunteer facilitators there in the background to make sure everybody has a fair crack at the whip at talking. I’ve heard of people who were participants in a group and have enjoyed it so much, they’ve applied to be volunteers.
“I intervene and say what I have to say. I think perhaps I do talk a bit too much!”
Arthur’s daughter, Jill Reville, describes Talk and Support as "invaluable social contact" for her dad.
“It’s an opportunity for him to speak to people of different ages and backgrounds, and they’re all able to share the fact that they have limited vision,” she says. “If you can’t see, other people don’t really understand, so everyone in the group understands.”
“Arthur enjoys listening to everyone in the group and he can talk the hind legs off a donkey! If you’re living on your own, the Talk and Support chat is a date in the diary, a time in the week to look forward to.”
Having lost her sight in a car accident when she was younger, Gill has used RNIB services for 40 years. However, it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that she started to take advantage of the social interaction opportunities available.
“In March 2020, I had to stop work because of lockdown. As I don’t use technology to keep in touch with people, I was finding it really hard and feeling very isolated,” she says. “The Guide Dogs’ Engagement Officer told me about RNIB Talk and Support, so I joined the group in May 2020 and have continued since then.
“I talk to the same people each time and have got to know them. It’s good to be able to speak to other people who are in the same position as me.
"Everybody was feeling isolated – having gone from leading an active life, going out and about, meeting people, and then suddenly having to stay at home.”
As well as helping her to overcome isolation, Gill has found the groups to be a source of practical advice.
“It’s been really useful for learning about coping mechanisms,” she says. “Through the group I learned that there was an exercise programme on the radio, for example. Sharing tips and ideas amongst ourselves is very helpful.
“Being part of the Talk and Support group has also widened my sense of community. The conversation is varied and the members are people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, being in different parts of the country, so it’s really interesting to hear what’s going on in their area.”
Get as much support as you can. I would definitely recommend joining Talk and Support.
Gill is a strong believer in the need to have practical, emotional and social support when coming to terms with a sight loss diagnosis.
“If I were to give advice to someone who’s just lost their sight, I’d say get as much support as you can” she says. “Go to organisations, both locally and nationally, such as RNIB, Guide Dogs and local blind societies, just get as much help as you can. There are people there who can support you.
“I would definitely recommend joining Talk and Support, especially for people who have recently lost their sight.
“It helps to talk to people who have been blind for a while and hear them say ‘I can still do things, and life is still possible’. That feels really encouraging.”