A heart-warming friendship between a young volunteer and an elderly lady.

Lya Ullmann’s eyes light up as she enters Leipzig Zoo. She’s been looking forward to this visit for a long time. The last time she came here was fifteen years ago. The 82-year-old is not able to walk very far and can only manage short distances on her crutches. Today’s outing to one of Germany’s best zoos has all been arranged by Anja Gomoll, the young volunteer who has been providing support and companionship to Frau Ullmann for the past nine months. On this Sunday in February, the 29-year-old pushes the elderly lady patiently around the zoo in the wheelchair she booked for the trip. Gomoll has got to know her companion well by now and remembers that she needs to speak a little bit louder.

A desire to get involved and do something useful

It all began in summer 2014 when Anja Gomoll was working on the final project of her civil engineering degree course and spending day after day immersed in figures and theory. She knew she had to persevere and finish her degree so she could find a good job. But she also had a strong feeling that she wanted to do something useful. Gomoll thought about getting involved in voluntary work so she could help someone in a direct and practical way. She searched the Internet and came across the Malteser Hilfsdienst – one of Germany’s largest social welfare associations, which provides a range of services for the community. One of its schemes involved matching up volunteers with people who spend a lot of time alone and would like some company. “I decided to ring the organisation there and then, and I met Frau Ullmann for the first time in August. We hit it off from the start,” says Anja Gomoll.

Listening, telling stories, learning to knit and visiting the cinema

Since then, Anja Gomoll has been visiting Lya Ullmann once a week. She brings cake with her and they chat. “I really enjoy listening to Frau Ullmann and I’m amazed at all the things she knows. She talks about what Leipzig was like years ago, what the streets used to be called and how things were different in the GDR period.” Frau Ullmann recently taught her young companion how to knit. “It’s fantastic. I’ve just finished knitting my first woolly hat!” says Anja Gomoll proudly. The pair have also been to the cinema, which proved to be a very special outing for the elderly lady. “The last time I went to the cinema was before reunification, so it was over 26 years ago. I was really surprised to see what cinemas look like nowadays and how comfortable the seats are,” says Lya Ullmann. The animal lover has a modest lifestyle and manages on a small pension. Expensive trips are out of the question. She has also suffered from a hip complaint for a long time which makes walking difficult, even with crutches. Things that are straightforward for people with healthy legs, like popping to the shops and carrying full shopping bags or even just going to the cinema, often present an insurmountable obstacle for Lya Ullmann. Television and newspapers help to keep her connected to what’s going on in the world, as does the time she spends with Anja Gomoll.

Friendship across the generations

The voluntary befriending scheme has enabled the two women to develop a heart-warming friendship that spans the generations and is both practical and life-affirming. “I get a lot out of our meetings,” says Gomoll. “They’ve given me a whole new perspective on things. For instance, I’m much more likely to notice whether buildings are designed to meet the needs of elderly people and people with disabilities.” Lya Ullmann says: “Before I met Anja, I hadn’t felt well for a long time. Our regular sessions have given me a new lease of life.” She reaches into her handbag and pulls out a flyer advertising a reading with a Leipzig cabaret artist. Anja Gomoll looks at it quizzically before smiling, and says: “You’d like to go along, would you?” It will be the next outing on their list after the expedition to the zoo.