22 June 2011

No big society, just a little dog

About two years ago – the last time I was out of work (it's a recurring theme in my patchy career) – I decided to register as a volunteer with a charity called The Cinnamon Trust. I had the spare time, and it was a cause that I could identify with. It's a charity set up to help elderly people who have pets – from taking a pet to the vet, through to regular dog walking, and up to the commitment of fostering.

I have two very beloved pets of my own. I know how important the bond is, and I would hate to think of being forced to give up my companions because of infirmity. It seemed like a perfect way to marry my love of animals and my desire to do something productive and useful while I wasn't working.

As it happened, at the time there were no volunteers needed in my area. But then, with perfect timing, just as my last contract came to a finish, the Cinnamon Trust contacted me. An elderly man who lives in the town about 5 miles from my own had a dog that needed walking. I leapt at the chance.

And so I met this fella. This is Teddy, a 5½-year-old English cocker spaniel. My childhood dog was an English cocker spaniel so it's a breed with a special place in my heart. They're a bit nuts but utterly gorgeous.

Teddy's owner is a gentleman of some 91 years. He has a degenerative spine condition, and suffers from shortness of breath, so walking an energetic dog in its prime is too much for him. I was more than happy to step in and help.

Lady with treats, why it rain? Me all wet. :-( I can has treat?
The walks have become something to look forward to and a genuine pleasure. Walking Teddy helped keep me from slipping into despair, which is always a risk when not working. It kept a routine and structure to my day, and without being too dramatic about it, it was a reason I had to get up and get out of my PJs every day. It was fresh air and exercise for us both, and anyway, it's impossible to feel down when you're looking after a dog who's beside himself with joy at life. Every day he burst through the door and barrelled towards me with an unbridled frenzy of delight at the prospect of a walk, never dimmed by repetition, and that always put a huge smile on my face. Even when the weather wasn't so great…

One day when we came back from our walk, Teddy's owner invited me in, telling me he had something to show me. This was a photograph of him and his wife, taken in the 1940s, he looking handsome in an RAF uniform and she looking glamorous and lipsticked in the way that women in the 1940s seemed to manage so effortlessly. He told me that he and his wife had been married for 65 years, and she had passed away about 5 years previously – judging by Teddy's age, he arrived on the scene around the same time as his owner's wife passed.

Still, he said, gesturing to Teddy, I have him for company.

I walked out of there with a lump in my throat. He'd just demonstrated just why, exactly, the work the Cinnamon Trust does is so important. The bond he had with his youthfully exuberant dog, and the company that dog provided, was so important – but without help, he wouldn't be able to keep him, and the flat would be silent and lonely. Some days when he opens the door he looks in fine health, but other days he's unshaven, still in his dressing gown at 10am, wincing in pain. His children – presumably near retirement age themselves – live nearby but Teddy is always there for him.

As desperate as I've been to return to work, watching my meagre savings deplete at an alarming rate, it was with huge sadness that I emailed the Cinnamon Trust today to tell them that I won't be able to take Teddy out anymore. The endorphins of daylight and exercise, the feelgood factor of helping someone else, and the infectious joy of a happy mutt have been as good for me as the practical help has been for his owner.

Several times Teddy's owner has presented me with boxes of chocolates “from Teddy and me”. It's flustered me. I feel it's a privilege to help out, and don't need that kind of thanks. I feel I should be thanking them.

There's a lot of talk in this current government about Big Society. My own personal feeling is that it's farcical, and a back-door way of getting cheap or free labour as more and more people become unemployed. This isn't a political blog – there are far better people out there covering the politics – but I will say one thing: I can't see that forcing the unemployed to volunteer in order to keep their benefits would work. Volunteering takes heart, and commitment, to work, and I'd imagine if I'd been forced, I would have found it counterproductive and depressing.

However, volunteering because I wanted to has turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done while out of work, and didn't feel like a chore or a commitment at all. If there were a way to carry on when my new job starts, I would, but doing a full-time job and also committing eight hours a week regularly to the dogwalking just wouldn't work. It's clear that Teddy's owner isn't an early riser so I can't do it before work, and I can't guarantee I'll be available every night after work. Those extra eight hours a week will be too hard to find. I'm sad that I can't carry on. Teddy might not know it, but he helped me as much as I helped him and his owner.

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