Connie, one of our Re:connect service users with her new tablet.
We all know how much COVID-19 has disproportionately affected our elderly population, who have been at much greater risk of being hospitalised or dying if they are diagnosed with the disease. To keep themselves safe, our older people have been shielding at home now for almost a year.
Even before the virus reared its ugly head, those whose loved ones had passed away or who’d lost touch with families were already particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which research has proven time and again to have a detrimental effect on health and wellbeing. And of course, declining health and mobility problems often meant they were unable to get out and about without support.
Working with older people has been my focus for many of the years I’ve been with Northumberland CVA (which still operated as Wansbeck CVS back then), particularly since our Re:action Assisted Shopping Scheme was set up over 19 years ago to address social isolation issues amongst older people in South East Northumberland.
Using accessible minibuses and a team of volunteers, the project collects elderly users from their own front door and takes them out to popular shopping areas so they can benefit from social connections, continue to make their own shopping choices and maintain their independence.
In 2016 we also launched a new Doing Digital service, taking our existing digital inclusion training sessions out into local communities to help older people develop IT skills and gain confidence online to carry out practical tasks such as applying for and renewing a blue badge online, carrying out price comparisons on utility bills and car insurance, using email and social media, and installing apps on tablets and mobile phones.
But of course COVID put these activities on hold and we were unable to continue the shopping trips and IT sessions at community venues. However, since the pandemic began, everyone one of us at Northumberland CVA has remained fully committed to supporting all of our service users, and particularly the older people who access our services.
As an organisation, we’ve constantly changed and adapted how Re:action works so it can continue to give support. My role, with the support of our volunteers, has involved keeping in touch with our older people through email and regular phone calls, and pulling together a directory of local businesses and shops providing services within the South East Northumberland area covered by the project for shopping, meal deliveries,etc. Along with useful contacts, including numbers for Northumberland County Council and emergency services, this has been turned into a valuable resource that we’ve been able to distribute to our service users.
And we’ve had wonderful feedback on the adapted service. One Re:action service user said, “The contact I've had from you and the local information you've sent has been a lifeline. I use the numbers regularly. Even though I can't get out, I'm going to Glenton’s for my bread and cakes, Morrison’s for my food, and I even treat myself to a cooked meal from one of the local cafes. It is so lovely to know you care and are keeping in touch. Thank you.”
We’ve also done all in our power to continue offering IT support remotely, although many of our older service users didn’t own a smart device that could make staying in touch easier. This issue led to us developing a new project called Re:connect.
Re:connect is a tablet loan scheme for older people that has been funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. The project is supported by IT volunteers and utilises Northumberland CVA’s links with local community organisations, including Bedlington Creative, Choppington Disability Group & Mind Active.
Re:connect aims to help older people become more digitally savvy and keep them connected with each other, with friends and families, and with any local community groups they may have been involved with before the crisis hit. Volunteers help people learn how to use the tablet device either via phone calls or in small group sessions online, giving them the knowledge and skills to not only stay connected during the COVID restrictions but also to more easily re-establish their normal social connections outside of the home once restrictions are eased.
We host weekly Zoom sessions where participants can talk freely about any IT issues they’re having, take part in a fun quiz, and hear from speakers who come and talk to the group.
One lady who has used the Re:connect Tablet Loan Scheme said “This has opened a whole new world to me. The volunteers are so patient when they are talking to me over the phone. I didn’t realise how easy it is to use [a tablet]. I wished I had got one years ago. The best bit for me is each night I facetime my sister and we talk for hours, it’s like we’re in each other's living rooms. Brilliant!”
And Re:connect has not only been great for the older people, it has also been a boon to our volunteers, one of whom has said, “I was feeling a bit lost during lockdown as I am usually a very active person within my community, and then suddenly it all stopped! To help with the Re:connect project has been great; I’ve been able to occupy myself with sessions and organising the quizzes. It's not just the older people who benefit from this project, the volunteers do too.”
Once we begin emerging from lockdown, when things are able to return to normal, Re:connect will continue to be a great addition to our services for older people. The project will complement our Re:action Assisted Shopping Scheme and Doing Digital projects in tackling loneliness and promoting independence in advancing age, helping to prevent the health issues that are known to arise from social isolation and that add pressure on our wonderful NHS.
Karen Cox is Northumberland CVA’s Project Co-ordinator for our older people’s services