Double honour for ‘Neighbour in a Million’
Published by James Allan for Salix Homes in Housing and also in Communities
A former nurse has dedicated the past 20 years to caring for her elderly and disabled neighbours despite suffering from a severe anxiety disorder that has left her unable to step outside her close-knit community.
Inspirational Denise Benson, 56, from Ordsall, Salford, provides a lifeline for her grateful neighbours who describe her as ‘one in a million’.
Denise has lived at her home in Ryall Avenue for the past 30 years during which time her neighbours – the majority of whom are elderly or disabled – have come to rely and depend on her for their every need.
Come rain or shine, at any time of day or night, Denise is always there to lend a helping hand whether it be administering their medicine, cooking their tea, booking doctor’s appointments or simply changing a lightbulb.
Denise’s neighbours are so grateful for all she does for them they nominated her for the Good Neighbour Star in the Salix Stars Awards, organised by Salford-based social housing provider Salix Homes – an accolade she has won for the past two years.
But 20 years ago Denise’s life changed forever when she suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of just 36.
At the time Denise was working as a nurse at a care home and led a normal life juggling work, an active social life and caring for her daughter Danielle, now 28.
It was during a trip to the supermarket when Denise suffered a serious panic attack – the first she had ever experienced.
She said: “My head just started to go muggy, I was feeling dizzy and sick and I could feel my body go in to panic mode. All these thoughts started going round in my head, but none of it made sense.”
After that first attack, every time Denise attempted to step outside her home, she could feel the panic setting in. Doctors diagnosed Denise with agoraphobia and she had to leave her job.
Denise has no idea where her illness stems from, but for the past 20 years it has left her too scared to venture outside the perimeters of the small, gated community where she feels safe and she has only left her home a handful of times.
She added: “I can go to all my neighbours’ homes, but don’t ask me to go any further than that. If I do, I can feel the panic coming on and my stomach starts churning over, then I have to come back inside and shut the door and I feel safe again.”
But instead of letting her illness get her down, Denise devotes all her time to caring for her neighbours.
Her phone is like a hotline, she has spare keys to all of her neighbours’ flats, people are constantly knocking on her door and she has all their families’ numbers on speed dial.
Denise added: “I do literally anything they ask me to. One neighbour suffers from Alzheimer’s and she doesn’t remember to take her medication so I give it to her. There’s another who suffers memory loss, so he struggles with his cooking so I go round and do his chips for him and at Christmas I do Christmas dinners for everyone who’s on their own.
“There’s another man who’s blind so I read his post for him and help him with filling in forms. The phone rings constantly and it could be anything like can I change a lightbulb or put a battery in their hearing aid and one lady rings me every night at 10pm just to say goodnight – they do make me laugh sometimes.”
But Denise says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love to do it,” she said. “They are more than neighbours, they’re my friends. Plus it helps me with my agoraphobia because it keeps me busy and gives me something to do. I have had calls in the middle of the night, but I’m never frightened to go out because I know someone needs me more than my own fears.”
For the past two years Denise has won the Good Neighbour Star, but her illness means she is unable to attend the awards ceremony, which was held last month.
She said: “I can’t believe I won again, but it’s so nice to know that they appreciate what I do. Danielle went to the awards ceremony for me. I couldn’t have gone; I would have walked into the room, saw all those people and had to walk straight back out.
“I know I have missed out on a lot. When my daughter was growing up I couldn’t take her to school and I’ve missed big family events like weddings and birthdays, but I have learned to adapt and I have wonderful support from my friends and family who do a lot for me.”
Denise’s daughter Danielle, who lives round the corner from her mum, is now following in her mum’s neighbourly footsteps.
Danielle, who is a nursery nurse, said: “I’m like her apprentice; she’s always sending me out to do jobs for people! I’m so proud of my mum, she’s an angel – it’s just in her nature to help people.”
Sue Sutton, director of customer and neighbourhood services at Salix Homes, said: “We were very proud to crown Denise our Good Neighbour Star for the second year. The efforts of a good neighbour like Denise are quite simply life changing.
“It is so important to celebrate such wonderful acts of kindness and generosity of spirit and Denise is a great example to all of us.”