Despite the sharp wind and unusually bleak summer skies, the terraces surrounding Roeselare’s town square are packed. Behind glass partitions people huddle down in warm jumpers and extra scarves over coffee, kriek and hot chocolate, desperate for a few moments of fresh air and friendly faces. Somewhere among the rows of tables sit Christine, 59, and Nougeria, 54, one of an estimated 200 duos that Vandeurzen’s Buddywerking Vlaanderen project has brought together across Flanders.
“Christine is not a ‘patient’; she’s my friend,” begins Nougeria, the buddy with whom Christine, who was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) 10 years ago, meets every Thursday.
Christine (photo left) and Nougeria (photo right) meet for coffee on the very terrace where I interview them today. “This is our spot,” grins Christine. “Sometimes we just have coffee and watch the world go by and sometimes, if I feel strong enough, we’ll go for a stroll along the store fronts surrounding the square.”
Christine whose physical affliction has isolated her, first met Nougeria two years ago, when she approached Buddywerking South West Flanders to request a buddy whom she could meet with on a weekly basis.
“Living with CFS is a huge adjustment, not only for me but also for my family. My illness forced me to quit my job as a secretary. Now I’m at home full-time and I have very little contact with anyone beyond my immediate family. I approached Buddywerking because I could use a friend who was not part of my direct environment, someone who did not have to deal with the realities of my illness every day – an outsider whom I could talk to, not only about my illness but about other things too.”
The fundamental premise of Vandeurzen’s Buddywerking system, which has been around since 1995 but has been rolled out in various parts of Flanders only since 2007, is to match a “buddy” – someone in a stable life phase who is prepared to commit to meeting with an (ex) patient once a week for at least a year – with a “participant”, to help improve the participant’s social life.
Research proves that a well-entrenched buddy system offers many advantages: It takes socially weaker individuals such as Chrisitne, whose physical illness isolates her, out of their isolation. It helps remove stigmas around certain afflictions; it improves the quality of life for the participant; and it decreases the risks of relapse and of suicide.
But the buddy system is much more than simply a matching of patient to buddy. A detailed process supports the duo well beyond the initial matching, from intake interviews with both parties and educational and networking sessions for the buddies, to follow-up evaluations and networking with other organisations in the mental health sector.
Marian Deldaele of Buddywerking South West Flanders, who accompanied Christine and Nougeria during the interview, explains: “We take great care to make sure we have a good match between the buddy and the participant.
First, we select our buddies through intake questionnaires and interviews during which we get to know them better and make sure that they are indeed suited to becoming a buddy. Being a good listener with a stable and patient personality and empathy for people with certain vulnerabilities is very important,” she says. “Once we have ascertained that someone has the capacities to become a buddy, we begin the search for a matching participant.
Matching a buddy to a participant is part science, part intuition and experience, according to Deldaele. “We consider things such as character type, age and, of course, hobbies and interests.” A match between a buddy and a participant always starts with a three-month trial. “At the end of this period, we talk with both parties to make sure the relationship is developing in a positive direction. It’s also a perfect opportunity to find out whether the buddy needs support on specific topics or whether we could have them attend training sessions to help them better understand or deal with specific situations.”
Both Christine and Nougeria still remember meeting each other for the first time. “Nougeria was the first buddy I was introduced to,” smiles Christine as she looks over at Nougeria. “I guess we were lucky; we hit it off immediately and now we’ve been friends for more than two years.” Nougeria completes her friend’s thought: “The first time we met, I asked Christine: What do you expect of me? She was very clear: She wanted someone she could talk with, not only about her illness but also about both our lives, the things that interest us, things that are happening in the world…”
Vandeurzen, who rolled out the Buddywerking project to the whole of Flanders at the end of 2011, explains: “We wanted to give our participants a contact in the ‘real world’. Not a medical practitioner who analyses them, but someone who is just there, as a bridge to the outside world.”
The benefits of the system are clear to Christine. “Having Nougeria to talk to gives me another perspective on the world. Sometimes it’s something as simple as helping me see a situation at home in a different light, and sometimes, it’s her own life experiences that provide me with valuable insights. Nougeria also works full-time, and we talk about her work sometimes, too which I find very interesting. It keeps me connected to the real world.” Nougeria smiles, placing her hand on Christine’s: “We’re not always serious; sometimes we also laugh about the silliest things,” she winks as they both break into laughter.
But not everyone is as lucky as Christine. “We do have more participants than we have buddies,” says Deldaele. “There is a waiting list for buddies at the moment. Like the other 12 chapters of Buddywerking, we keep searching and hoping for more enthusiastic people to become buddies. Most pressing are buddies for younger people and male participants.”
“Spending time with Nougeria is a real boost,” concludes Christine. Nougeria waves away her friend’s grateful glance. “Helping people get back on their feet, there’s a lot of fulfilment in that.” They look at each other. “That’s why we’re here telling our story today,” adds Christine. “To help people take that first step to ask for a buddy. We both get so much back from it.”