THE smile on Winnie Cumming’s face tells the story of how befriending has changed her life.
Winnie (81), from Elgin, lost her confidence in recent years following the death of her husband and losing her sight to dry macular degeneration.
Plagued by anxiety and depression, the former home carer struggled to leave her house.
However, a referral to the Moray Befriending Service three years ago, run by North East Sensory Services, changed all that.
And now she cannot imagine life without her befriender and valued friend, Patricia MacCallum.
Winnie, who is visually impaired, looks forward to Patricia’s weekly visit, and the pair enjoy chatting and going out on shopping trips.
"Befriending is the best thing that has happened to me. It has given me back my confidence," she said.
"Patricia is a lovely person and would do anything for me. Nothing is too much bother.
"Patricia is very good at taking me shopping. She tells me what is on the shelves and explains things to me. I couldn’t wish for anybody better," she added .
Winnie – who had 50 years of happy married life with husband Benjamin, a gardener and handyman at Dunkinty House in Elgin – recalled the day when she first realised that her sight was deteriorating.
"I lifted the newspaper one day and couldn’t read it," she said. "The following day I went up the town and the lady who served me in Marks and Spencer remarked that I had awfully sore eyes and I should go to an optician."
Within hours, Winnie had been referred to an eye specialist at Dr Gray’s Hospital.
She can see shapes, but not much else, and her condition will continue to deteriorate.
For a fiercely independent person, the jolt to her confidence brought about by her failing sight was a shock to the system.
"I am very independent, but I just felt I couldn’t go out when I couldn’t see things," she said.
She has carers who visit in the morning and at night to attend to other personal needs, and help with ironing and housework.
But it is the befriending service that has helped Winnie rediscover her zest for life.
The pair have been all over Moray and beyond, including a visit to Winnie’s home village of Fordyce in Aberdeenshire.
"If Patricia takes me to Lossiemouth, we go to the promenade. I can see the white of the waves and nothing else, but it is great to smell the sea air.
"If I am not fit enough to go out somewhere, we sit and chat and have a cup of tea," said Winnie.
"I couldn’t imagine life without the service. It is very important to me."
She now also attends a group for visually impaired people which meets every week at Elgin Community Centre.
Patricia, a retired businesswoman, also helps care for her mother, who has a visual impairment.
The biggest reward for her is seeing the difference their friendship has made to Winnie.
"It gives me a great sense of joy. She didn’t smile very often, but now we have laughs. She is happy, and that makes me happy," she said.
Kirsty Williams, service co-ordinator for Moray and North Aberdeenshire, said: "Befriending increases people’s confidence, opens up social opportunities and helps people to lead independent lives."
She said that Winnie’s story was typical of the difference that befriending can make in people’s lives.
All volunteers are given full sensory training and are carefully matched with the people they befriend.
There is always a need for more volunteers to keep up with demand for the service, which receives Lottery funding.
People can approach the service themselves, or be referred by GPs, carers, family or friends.
The contact number for the befriending service in Moray is 01343 547617.