Catalysing community action

Zaidee O’Dell, London project manager, Compassionate Neighbours,and Associate Consultant at Campbell Tickell, details her work with St Joseph’s Hospice in East London on the Compassionate Neighbours project.

At a time when the world often feels mad and cruel, it is heart-warming to witness so many people eager to engage with those in their community who need support. It is as if they need the opportunity and permission to do so. I have spent the past 18 months working with St Joseph’s Hospice in east London to deliver a project close to my heart.

Compassionate Neighbours is a movement of local people who are enabled and supported to be more compassionate in their local communities. They provide social and emotional support to people towards the end of their life and also share knowledge and experiences of end of life and loss within their community.

Collective responsibility

The award-winning project was introduced to the hospice 10 years ago. Inspired by the concept of compassionate communities, the programme aims to replicate a similar one in Kerala, India. Underpinned by public health principles, to promote and protect health and well-being, it emphasizes the collective responsibility of society and community.

In 2017 St Joseph’s received funding from a Nesta innovation fund to roll out Compassionate Neighbours to seven other hospices across London and the suburbs. It was a privilege to manage this setup. So how does it work? In contrast to traditional befriending programmes, few boundaries are placed on the relationship between compassionate neighbours and the person they support. Instead, volunteers are supported to develop a meaningful reciprocal relationship and engage with one another, as much or as little as feels comfortable. There is no requirement for compassionate neighbours to report on their activity.

Limetree Court
Compassionate neighbours interacting with residents at Limetree Court,  run by Anchor Hanover Group

No shortage of volunteers

Communities have warmly embraced the concept. There has been no shortage of people wanting to undertake the two days of experiential training – the youngest just 19 and the oldest 85. At the end of March 2019 there were more than 900 compassionate neighbours across London and almost 500 matched with someone in their community.

Several informal partnerships have been formed in developing projects. One example is St Joseph’s and Anchor Hanover Housing Association, which welcomed compassionate neighbours into a new extra-care scheme in Hackney, east London, where none of the residents knew each other.

The compassionate neighbours help to run a social club in the communal lounge and more than half the residents now regularly participate in activities as a result of their encouragement and support. As one estate manager remarked:

The neighbours have created an amazingly warm atmosphere of ease and inclusiveness. Residents can just sit and chat, meet their physical neighbours, play dominoes or cards or watch a film. One of the neighbours is a gardener and he plants alongside residents.

Knock-on effects

Sometimes these interactions lead to even more. An 88-year-old man with ill health and a history of hoarding and challenging behaviour lived in the scheme. He was matched with a compassionate neighbour who encouraged him to play his record collection and also encouraged him out of his hoarding behaviours and into socialising. As noted: “For one lonely person in a difficult stage of life, this has had a massive knock-on effect for everyone surrounding him.”

Death unites us all but it is rarely talked about. None of us can prevent it but we can prevent the fear and isolation many people experience when faced with it. The mission of Compassionate Neighbours is to catalyse community action so everyone can create meaningful and reciprocal relationships that sustain them towards the end of their lives. To find out more, visit

To find out more, contact Liz Zacharias :

This article also appears in CT Brief- Issue 43

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