A FRIENDLY voice at the end of the phone has helped one 68-year-old turn his life around after panic attacks left him unable to often leave his house.

Derek Needham lost his sight in his left eye in 2001 and has suffered from severe cataracts in his right eye in recent years, and is now unable to see anything beyond 'blurry shapes'.

This, coupled with agoraphobia - a fear of being in crowds, public places or open areas - that often prompts panic attacks, left him unable to leave his home alone.

But after signing up to the Age UK Oxfordshire Phone Friends scheme, supported by his landlords Sanctuary Housing, he has turned his life around and gained the confidence to get back out into the community.

Mr Needham, who lives with his son Stacy who has Asperger's Syndrome, said: "A few years ago I started suffering from panic attacks.

"It became a struggle to leave the house. As time went by I started to go out less and less."

The dad of four said it got to a point where he would only see youngest son Stacy, 28, and on a weekly basis his daughter Lisa.

Despite the support of his children, Mr Needham said he would turn to the television or radio for company adding it is not the same as human company but 'better than nothing'.

Sanctuary Housing has donated £6,500 to its phone friend service this year as part of its on-going support for the charity.

Mr Needham has now opted to help others in the same position by becoming a phone friend volunteer with the charity, including leaving the house along to take on the training with Age UK Oxfordshire.

He said: "The chats on the phone with the charity have been very valuable to me and so I thought I could help others in the same way.

"People can get lonely and there are some people out there with nobody at all.

"It is such a simple idea but it makes a real difference."

Mr Needham was one of almost 275 lonely older people helped by the phone project over the past year which amounted to more than 1,400 calls.

Sanctuary Housing neighbourhood partnerships manager Kate Winstanley said: "We are committed to supporting projects that tackle loneliness and social isolation and help our residents live happy and fulfilled lives.

"We are delighted the scheme has made such a positive difference for Derek and that he will now be helping deliver this valuable support to others."

The Age UK Oxfordshire is always looking for volunteers to join the phone friends project. To find out more information contact phonefriends@ageukoxfordshire.org.uk or 01295 234850