'He's my mate': The power of volunteering in tackling the 'epidemic of loneliness'

Watch ITV Wales reporter Hamish Auskerry's report on Leonard and his good friend Nikki.

"I'm single", 96-year old WW2 veteran Leonard Willis proudly declares.

"An eligible bachelor?", I ask him. "Bachelor of arts!", he replies with a wide grin.

I'm sat in Len's house in the Grangetown area of Cardiff, where he's lived for 15 years. Cardiff has always been his home, even when he joined up in 1944 when, he says, times were "bleak".

With us is Nikki Taylor, a professional chef. Nikki is also a volunteer for Age Connects in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. For the last three years she has regularly visited Len for a chat and a cuppa, helping to stave off the pernicious threat of loneliness.

"We would spend time in the garden, painting the bench and just general talking", Nikki says in Len's living room.

Nikki helps in the garden, while Ron and Len watch on Credit: Age Connects

"I realised how much we had in common. I have done some army time and I'd also just lost my parents and my grandma, so it made a difference to my life. That's how it started and I've never looked back".

Nikki was furloughed in the pandemic and while she was being paid but could not work, she decided to take up volunteering in her local area.

When she meant Len, he still lived with his brother Ronald, who served in Egypt with the Royal Air Force in the early 1950s. Ron died in 2021, leaving Len living alone.

"It's about seeing people and it's so important", Nikki says. "We choose time to be alone, but some people don't have that choice - it's heartbreaking".

Len and Nikki chat about football while bonding over their love of Cardiff and Wales. Nikki says they moan together about the same things everyone else does, but just the act of talking is a tonic to them both.

"You've built up a friendship now after three years then?", I ask Len. "Oh, yes!", he replies.

"It's company. Even if she's only here for half an hour, it's something, you know?".

Nikki helps Len with simple everyday tasks, the most importance of which is making a brew

Leonard served in the Royal Army Service Corps towards the end of World War Two. During the pandemic he was helped with shopping and gardening by Nikki.

But the loss of his brother Ronald left Len feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, something that is experienced by so many people across Wales.

"Loneliness is very detrimental for your health", Karen Fletcher from Age Connects explains.

"We really need the support and the funding so that our charity can reach out and support even more people", Karen continued.

Before the pandemic, Age Connects Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan managed around 200 volunteers. That number is now down 10% to 270, but demand keeps rising.

The charity has launched a new campaign called "A Natter Matters" to encourage more people to volunteer.

"We want to say to people that we can help and you don't need to tackle the problems of loneliness on your own", Karen said. "Many of the people we support are housebound or who maybe don't have family or friends nearby to help. It can be scary to find yourself on your own.

"It can do the world of difference to know that there's someone who can visit you, to have a cuppa with you, just so that you know you're not entirely on your own".

I declare an interest here, as someone who has benefitted greatly myself from being part of a befriending service with the charity Independent Age.

I filmed during the pandemic with an amazing woman called Megan who I had got to know through the charity, and had seen first hand how she battled loneliness before she died.

Loneliness and social isolation are often described by experts as being an epidemic, with people perversely feeling increasingly disconnected from an ever more connected world.

Age Connects Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan encourage anyone who may be willing to give some of their time to volunteering to contact them.

That's something Nikki is forever glad she did.

"I probably get more out of than Len", she tells me. Our relationship is more than just I'm a volunteer. He's my mate, simple as that. That's how it's developed over time. But I just think everyone needs to try it".