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Connecting people from overseas with the elderly to tackle loneliness

A Cardiff charity has won £59k in funding to expand its role in uniting non-native English speakers and elderly locals.

Sarah Duncan-Jones (right), the manager of FAN, celebrates the windfall from The Big Lottery

People from overseas and the elderly come together regularly for group discussions organised by a local charity, which has received a grant to expand beyond Cardiff.

Last month the FAN Charity (FAN stands for Friends And Neighbours) received £59k in funding from The Big Lottery and are looking to expand into Swansea and Newport. The charity organises the meetings with two goals in mind, to combat loneliness and to help learners of the English language to integrate into the community. 

“It’s very difficult to meet people when you’re older,” says Carol Elliot, who moved to Cardiff 3 years ago and is retired. “If you’re not religious you haven’t got a readymade community to slot into. So where do you start? After moving to Cardiff I joined a FAN group, and I’ve been going along ever since.”

People from Catalonia, Czech Republic, China, France, South Korea, Sudan and Turkey join locals from Wales for a FAN Group meeting at Cardiff Central Library.

Sarah Duncan-Jones, the manager of FAN, explains how the meetings allow people experiencing significant change in their lives to foster new relationships, whether that change is brought about by moving home, bereavement or retirement.  

“When you retire you still have skills, energy and enthusiasm. How do you share all that?” Says Sarah. “Your children have their own friends, you want to have your own friends.”

Sarah currently manages the weekly meetings of 16 FAN groups across Cardiff which have connected people of more than 110 nationalities. All these meetings are based on a ‘talking in turn’ model, at the start each person reads a line from the opening statement pictured below.

The opening statement ensures FAN meetings run according to the charity’s principles

Each meeting the FAN group discusses a particular topic, whether it be men wearing nail varnish or the rain. Even a topic as simple as the rain can illicit meaningful conversations according to Sarah.

“One lady from the FAN group in Canton hadn’t lived in her country for a long time. She told the group how, as a child, she would run and hide under her mother’s knees because she hated the very heavy rain. There’s something very powerful and special about sharing that sort of memory with people, because those things are central to us.”

FAN members deep in conversation at the charity’s Once Strangers, Now Friends event

However Sarah admits it will be difficult to sustain FAN in Swansea. The organisation doesn’t have the same reputation or network there, and with only one part-time employee there has to be a team of passionate volunteers to set up and nurture the groups.

“We have a strategy for Swansea but the reality is you go where you’re wanted,” says Sarah. “You need people who are enthusiastic to take it on as a model. People who can see the value of FAN.”

Here in Cardiff FAN are still looking for a student to lead a group in the Student Union Costa, anyone interested can find contact details on the FAN website. 

Sarah also encourages international students to attend a FAN meeting, she especially recommends the meetings at the Central Library every Thursday at 5:30.

The charity has connected people from more than 110 nationalities who now call Cardiff home

“FAN is a very simple thing, it’s just a piece of paper really. It’s cheap and cheerful, but people still come. They come for that hour of conversation,” says Sarah. “Our ambition is to have a FAN group in every town across the world so that nobody would ever feel lonely.”