How a Sydney mailroom is tackling the scourge of loneliness in the elderly

Florida Twenlow is 73 years old and retired but she still feels young in her heart.

She found she had too much time on her hands and wanted to keep herself physically and mentally active.

“It would be too boring to do nothing.”

Ms Twenlow joined as a volunteer at Beehive Industries, a social enterprise that gives seniors and long-term unemployed people work in a mailroom.

“I come here to occupy myself because I have too much time in my day,” she said.

It’s a similar story for Lachlan, who is 65 and finds it hard to get work because he has no formal qualifications and an ongoing back problem.

“It’s been around 10 years now. I’m hoping it will go away … but it doesn’t want to go away,” he said.

Lachlan also volunteers at Beehive where he does mailroom jobs for companies and charities.

The fees companies pay for Beehive’s services are used to pay for overheads including power and insurance.

His work includes sealing books in plastic sleeves, handling return-to-sender mail for government agencies and placing award stickers on coffee bags.

For example, Beehive volunteers assemble the fundraising packages for veterans’ charity Legacy which are then mailed to Legacy volunteers.

Lachlan, who did not wish to provide his surname, says another benefit of going to Beehive is connecting with other people — it hosts communal lunches for the volunteers and occasionally holds bingo games.

“They come here to have a hot meal and instead of just being at home,” he said.

“[Some people] probably don’t eat as they do when they come here.”

Battling loneliness
A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2021 said social isolation was linked to mental illness and the development of dementia.

The same report said the risk of premature death associated with loneliness was similar to better-known risks such as obesity.

Beehive’s main goal is to address loneliness in vulnerable groups such as the elderly and people living with disability, operations manager Renee Anderson says.

“People love coming here because they are not sitting at home on their own,” she said.

“They might be aged, but they enjoy doing different things and learning new skills and showing us what they can do as well.”

Food rescue keeps costs down
Twice a week the yellow OzHarvest truck arrives at Beehive’s building delivering fresh fruit, vegetables and other staples to be used to make the volunteers’ lunches.

The food, rescued from supermarkets, would have otherwise gone to landfill because it would not have been purchased before the expiry date.

Lunches are served in Beehive’s cafeteria where participants can form social connections.

Ms Anderson says the lunches save “Beehivers” up to $50 a week.

“That’s a huge difference to people when they’re only on pensions,” she said.

Chef Linda Westacott believes the deliveries save Beehive around $300 a day because it does not have to buy food for the lunches.

“I’ve been here for three years now. Every week I’m still flabbergasted at the amount of food that would get thrown away,” Ms Westacott said, referring to the food rescued by OzHarvest.

Perfectly good produce not used by Beehive’s kitchen is then passed on to other local charities such as a local church group in Broadway.

Ms Westacott says the meal at Beehive might be the only one some volunteers have all day, so she tries to make it as nutritious as possible.

“[This] gives them a sense of being a community; they come in here, they all talk,” she said.

“It also gives them a nutritious meal as well.”