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Lavanya Mane, a PhD student at the Francis Crick Institute, has been volunteering with North London Cares - a community organisation that encourages social interactions between their older and younger members. Read on to find out how Lavanya got involved, the relationship she developed with her older neighbour and how volunteering has had a positive impact on her life.

I started volunteering with North London Cares around nine months into my PhD, during my first summer at UCL.  North London Cares brings together what are statistically the two loneliest groups of people – those in their twenties-to-thirties and those over sixty.  During my first year volunteering with North London Cares, I mainly helped out at the social clubs, which included dances, helping with tech and watching films with the members. Social clubs were a great way to ease into the organisation, as it’s just a group of people, both older and younger, getting involved in fun activities without the pressure of sustaining a one-to-one conversation. I did think it was going to be difficult to connect with older people - but it wasn’t!

After about a year, I joined their Love Your Neighbour programme, which was designed for those older neighbours who may not be able to go out and take part in the social clubs organised by North London Cares. Love Your Neighbour matches one older person with a younger person, whom you will visit usually once a week. I was paired with a lovely lady called Rita, and we quickly developed a relationship so that now it’s just like hanging out with a great friend every time I visit!

Although there is a generation gap, it doesn’t affect the nature of our friendship. We tell each other stories and share experiences – it’s just important to be open-minded. I formed a great relationship with my neighbour; Rita’s positivity and wit, even though she cannot leave the house unless someone takes her in a wheelchair, is such a radiant joy in my life.

It was upsetting to think about being unable to leave your own house in case you feel lonely, or go days without talking to another person (as many older people do), so every hour I spend with Rita is extremely important to me.

To be paired with your older neighbour, North London Cares first asks you to say things about yourself in order to match you with someone with common interests; mine and Rita’s were food, cooking and travelling. After the first three or four weeks, we fell into a comfortable pattern and I’ve formed such a lovely relationship with Rita – we even celebrated her birthday together!

Being a PhD student is not without its stresses and I’m generally quite an anxious person, but every week when I get to chat to Rita, she offers me a bigger-picture perspective on situations, which I really appreciate. At the end of each visit I invariably end up feeling a lot better. This programme is such an easy way to do something wonderful, not only for someone else, but for yourself too.

North London Cares also provides a lot of support in case of  a tricky or unfamiliar situation, and they’re always so happy to help. There is also no pressure to go every week, as long you work out and communicate a schedule that works for both you and your older neighbour. Besides, the flexibility of social clubs makes them a great way to get a taste for North London Cares before committing to the Love Your Neighbour programme.

Volunteering in the Love Your Neighbour programme makes you feel like you’re not providing a service, with some one-sided benefit, but is rather a slightly organised way of making a friend that you wouldn’t necessarily come across otherwise.

If Lavanya’s story has got you feeling inspired to volunteer with North London Cares, check out their Love Your Neighbour programme! You can also browse volunteering opportunities with older people on our directory.