We all know how important friends and family are in maintaining good mental health, but sometimes geography or other people’s busy lives mean we end up not seeing as much as we would like of those we love. Libby, aged 81, has turned strangers into friends through volunteering – though that’s just one of her many activities.
“I’m continuing to learn Spanish, I’ve done 1,600 miles on my exercise bike since the first lockdown, and I’ve been singing with my choir; it’s absolutely wonderful, we’re back together now, but sang on Zoom during the pandemic,” she says. “I home-schooled my grandson during lockdown – I have the greatest admiration for primary school teachers now – and recently a friend and I took two asylum-seeking families to London for the day for a picnic lunch.”
Libby is still packing an awful lot into her days, after a lifetime spent helping other people. Before retiring two decades ago, she worked as a teacher and instructor, helping people with mental and physical disabilities find work. Since then, she has thrown herself into volunteering: she spent 17 years with Childline (a free, confidential service available 24-7 for anyone under age 19), taught English to refugees, and is now reading with Year 2 children at a local school, as well as helping asylum seekers find their feet in their new homes.
The volunteering keeps her mentally alert and engaged, but she stresses that the benefits are far from one way.
“You get such a lot back from volunteering,” she says. “I was badly bullied at school, and had experience working with people with mental health and drug problems, so I felt Childline was a good fit for me. I loved it – speaking to the children was such a privilege. I had to stop due to the Covid restrictions for people aged over 70, but I’ve left a piece of my heart there.”
Using her own experiences to support others
Libby was widowed just a year into her retirement more than 20 years ago, and struggled to come to terms with her loss. She and her husband had planned to travel; Machu Picchu in Peru was top of the list, but they didn’t make it before he passed away, and in 2002 Libby took the trip by herself as part of a BBC programme, 50 Places To See Before You Die. It was a cathartic experience.
“That was very hard, as I was grieving really badly,” she says. “I’ve been to about 30 countries in my lifetime and I’d love to go to more – especially Spanish-speaking countries.”
She took a GCSE in Spanish after retiring, a useful skill to have when communicating with Spanish-speaking asylum-seekers. “I’m currently helping a family from El Salvador, and learning as much from them as they are from me,” she says.
Volunteering with refugees was the result of her location; she lives in Croydon, where the Home Office has an office. She could find herself doing anything from helping to fill out a school application form to teaching English (during the pandemic she carried on holding classes in a local park), to accompanying a Christian family to a local church service.
“You meet such lovely people, I’m happy to do whatever I can for them,” she says. “It’s often a wrench when they are resettled, you never know where in the country they are going to go.”
Learning to separate volunteering from family life
Both work and volunteering have given her the mental skills to deal with people and situations that are often heart-breakingly sad. She knows how to offer caring help, but without draining her own reserves.
“To be the right person you have to be able to switch off when you leave your desk,” she says. “I learnt that early on – though there was one evening when my son said to me, ‘Mum, have you been working with a deaf person today?’ I hadn’t realised I was speaking so clearly and intently!”
Her family is very important, with six grandchildren ranging in age from university students to primary school age. She honoured her parents’ generation by compiling a book, 100 Years of Childhood Innocence, that recorded the experience of growing up in the 20th century by interviewing dozens of people born throughout the century; it was inspired by her mother-in-law, who was born in 1900. The next generations of her family live close by, and she is able to see them frequently; technology was vital to stay in touch during the lockdown, as it has been for so many. Zoom also enabled her to carry on singing (she is in three different choirs) – not only as part of a choir, but also taking a solo spot once a month on a virtual Open Mike.
With so much still to give, Libby is still loving life. “I am happy, joyful in fact, and hope that I can spend at least the next ten years, learning, singing, volunteering and living a wonderful life,” she says.
You can buy Libby’s book, 100 Years of Childhood Innocence on Amazon. Profits go to Childline.