Abundant Life | Manifestation Affirmations

Margaret Shiplee at Suffolk’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve Show caption Margaret Shiplee at Suffolk’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian
Guardian angel

Margaret Shiplee sealed her commitment to her Suffolk community by joining a befriending scheme. So we treated her with some flowers

Sat 29 Jan 2022 11.00 GMT

When Margaret Shiplee retired from her job as a homecare worker for people with special needs 15 years ago, she was at a loss. “I thought, oh God – I have to do something now,” she says. “If I stopped doing anything I’d be bored out of my brain. I’m not very good at relaxing.”

Shiplee, who is 75 and lives in Worlingham, east Suffolk, then heard about an initiative called the Befriending Scheme, which connects adults with learning difficulties or mental health needs to people in their community. She signed up and was paired with Julie Martin, 58, from nearby Beccles, who has a learning disability. The two have now been friends for nearly 15 years.

The first time Shiplee met Martin was at a bingo night at a drop-in centre in a Quaker hall. Julie seemed a little forlorn. “Her mother had just died,” says Shiplee. “She was all on her own.”

Margaret with her first flower delivery Margaret with her first flower delivery. Photograph: /Courtesy of Margaret Shiplee

Shiplee’s 40 years of working with people with learning disabilities was a boon. “We hit it off,” says Shiplee. The key, she says, is to “treat them as you’d treat anyone else. Don’t talk down to them, or anything like that. Talk to them as you would talk to your friends, because that’s who they are, really.”

Every Wednesday, Martin and Shiplee meet up. They go for lunch, or coffee, or bowling, or to the beach. “You get so much more out of it than you give,” Shiplee says of their friendship. “It’s wonderful. Julie is so much fun. She’s full of beans. She has her down days, like we all do. But she’s mainly quite bubbly, and she’s always grateful.” Martin recently learned how to use a mobile phone, and sent Shiplee a nice message afterwards, which Shiplee treasures.

The feeling is mutual. “She does care about me,” says Martin. Shiplee is “a special friend. Always friendly and nice. She’s easy to talk to. And she’s kept me away from the doctor, which is brilliant.”

By this, Martin means her habit of going to the GP surgery regularly, worried that something is wrong with her. “She used to go and sit at the surgery almost every day,” says Shiplee. “I think it was so she would have a bit of connection with someone. Every time I see her now, she says: ‘I haven’t phoned the doctor!’” They joke about how much money Shiplee has saved the NHS.

Shiplee assists Martin with forms and paperwork, helped her get her Covid-19 vaccine, and takes her to hospital appointments. “If she has a problem,” says Shiplee, “she comes to me.” Martin goes to Shiplee’s house for Christmas most years. “She comes around for lunch and I take her home in the afternoon,” she says. “I can’t let her be on her own.”

Sometimes people are worried about joining befriending schemes, because they’re scared they won’t have anything to talk about. But silence isn’t the worst thing in the world. “Silence doesn’t bother me at all,” says Shiplee. “If Julie sits in silence, I just say: ‘Are we not speaking now? Have we fallen out?’”

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, an estimated 9 million people are lonely in the UK. Loneliness is associated with negative health outcomes such as high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. Half a million older people are estimated to go at least six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all.

Making new friends can “transform lives” says Christine Roe, who works for the Befriending Scheme, by “making the vital initial links between vulnerable people who might otherwise be feeling sad or lonely”.

Both women have gained much from the friendship. “She’s taught me how to take life as it comes,” says Shiplee of Martin. “She’s always so happy. We always have a little laugh.”

When I ask her about her Guardian Angel treat, Shiplee balks, as so many altruistic people do. “I’ve never been offered anything like that before,” she says, aghast. The one thing she would like, says Shiplee after thinking for a while, is fresh flowers. Shiplee grew up on a farm and loves to be surrounded by living things. “They’re so beautiful to have around the house, but expensive,” she says.

Arena Flowers, a flower subscription service, offers to send Shiplee fresh flowers every fortnight for a year. I catch up with her after her first delivery arrives. “It was such a big bouquet,” says Shiplee. “I wasn’t sure if I had a vase big enough. But I didn’t want to break them up, because they’re done so nicely.” She can’t wait for her next delivery.

The flowers will be replaced by a fresh bunch in two weeks. They are a living reminder of a treasured friendship, as well as the mutual benefits that come from connecting with our local community, and getting over your fears to say hello to a stranger.

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at guardian.angel@theguardian.com

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