The Sunday lunch club that provides so much more than a meal
Founder JO GILL says that the Welbeloved Club doesn't just provide its lonely, elderly diners with a roast dinner and good company - in one case, it gave a woman a reason to carry on living..
Launched in February, the Welbeloved Club has been hosting Sunday lunches once a month for people aged 65 and over in Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth in need of company and good food in a warm and safe environment.
When the club started at the Hailey Day Centre in Sawbridgeworth, it served the venue’s capacity of 48 people, with five on a waiting list, so we made it a priority to find a bigger place as soon as possible so we could accommodate everyone.
Within a few months, the phenomenal demand had led to a change to a bigger venue, the Memorial Hall in Sawbridgeworth, where the club caters for 82-85 elderly guests, the majority of whom spend their whole week alone.
Word spread and numbers began to grow. New faces joined, having never really tried anything like this before. Many had resigned themselves to silence, feeling they were “too old” to make friends any more. New guests came in with family members, clinging to them as if it was their first day at school.
Fast-forward a few months and these new people have now made friends, share lifts with other guests and even meet outside the club.
One guest was so apprehensive at her first lunch that she wanted me to ring her daughter early to collect her if the club “wasn’t for her”. Only an hour later, the lady came up to me to say that she didn’t need her daughter to come and get her as she had already made a friend on her table who would give her a lift home.
Volunteers have noticed changes among some of the diners in their mobility, appearance and general well-being. One felt guests had “more colour in their faces”, smiled more, chatted more. Others reported guests leaving lunches and saying “You’ve no idea how much better you make us feel.”
Guests report feeling less lonely, less isolated and more confident about speaking up and attending events as they felt more able to make friends.
I spotted a group of Welbeloved Club ladies out in Bishop’s Stortford. They had organised trips to Chelmsford so that one of them could find a new dinner jacket and have made numerous lunch dates at Bill’s, Prezzo, South Street Pantry and Cafe Thyme.
At our November lunch, a regular guest came in looking and feeling very low. She sat down at a table but didn’t engage with anyone. She just got out her newspaper and shut herself off.
After the meal, she joined in with the singer and got up on her feet to wave flags and dance with other guests.
At the end of the lunch she stayed behind and said: “I’ve been feeling really low for the last 10 days and have spoken to my priest about how lonely I feel. I’ve thought about ending it all.
“After your lunch though, I feel on top of the world and feel able to go on.”
It’s my firm belief that when people like this present themselves to their GP or healthcare assistants, something is missed.
This lady is a prime example that not only is loneliness so incredibly bad for your health but it also can be fixed so easily. Some food, company and music were just what she needed, and she went home in a much better headspace. If she were able to access a service like this on a regular basis, there would be no need to seek ‘treatment’ elsewhere.
When they first joined, so many of our guests would report aches all over, feeling depressed, not having much of an appetite. Nine months later they are asking for seconds, making friends, dancing and seeing their doctor less.
It’s not something I want to take credit for, it’s something I want people to take note of and feel compelled to learn from us and start something similar.
Many of our guests will be spending Christmas Day alone, so our lunch on the 16th will be their only Christmas dinner. It will be their Christmas Day, so it’s really important we make it as special as possible.
* Jo Gill, a former student of Birchwood High School, lives in Cedar Park, Thorley Park. She works as marketing and communications officer for St Elizabeth’s Centre at Perry Green. She was highly commended in the Community Champion category in the inaugural Indies – the Bishop’s Stortford Independent Community, Business and Sport Awards.