South West Age Partnership (SWAP): Keeping older people active and connected during lockdown
When South West Age Partnership hosted their annual Age Friendly Conference on 6 March, no-one quite expected what was to happen within the next 10 days. Then, on 15 March, the Government issued guidance advising that anyone over 70 years should isolate at home for at least twelve weeks. Ten weeks on we spoke to Allison Forbes, the Project Manager for SWAP, about how they have had to adapt their services to ensure that they can continue to support their members at such a crucial time.
Funded by the Western Trust to support groups for older people, and advocating for services in the Fermanagh and Omagh area, she recalls: “Suddenly, we all were told to work from home, older people were told to stay at home and all our normal practices and activities were stopped. I immediately realised that my volunteer group had vanished, and we couldn’t do the things we usually do. Most of our members are very active and for them it is a huge struggle to be told to stay indoors for this length of time.”
So, SWAP have had to adapt quickly. From supporting their members through their clubs and providing a variety of social activities, to supporting them in their homes where they are often isolated from friends and family.
SWAP Board getting to grips with Zoom meetings
Now working from home and supported by her Board, Allison started with the SWAP Facebook page to ensure she could keep connected to members with daily updates about the latest regulations and information about local support. Allison has also taken time to share online activities, virtual tours and local scenery, as well a daily blog on family life in lockdown, which is filled with cheerful anecdotes, recipes and plenty of pictures of the family dog.
"Social media was the best way to get our messages out to people and to connect with them; but of course, many of our members aren’t on social media, so how was I going to keep in touch with them? We have had to embrace technology and train people how to connect through their mobile phones, laptops and tablets. It’s a challenge, but it's where I see so much of our future work happening."
With support from Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, the SWAP Text Alert Service was quickly established and Allison was able to text updates and advice to less connected members, offering a friendly and reassuring voice at the end of the phone.
Local partnerships have a common purpose
With most of the work continuing over Zoom calls, emails, social media and telephone calls, SWAP have had to quickly adapt to supporting their members at home. Instead of their regular clubs and outings, staying healthy at home now involves crossword puzzles, crafts and sharing recipes. SWAP have developed Keeping Well at Home Activity Packs for socially isolated older people across Fermanagh and Omagh, with support from Age NI.
Keeping Well at Home Activity Packs
And a partnership with the local PSNI means officers will be distributing the bags. Allison says this keeps the local officers connected with local older people isolating at home, as well as offering the older people some reassurance at a difficult time.
Local Fermanagh and Omagh PSNI Officers collecting Keeping Well at Home Activity packs from Allison and her daughter Evie
It is at times of crisis that communities come together and good relationships with the Western Trust, the local Council and the community and voluntary sector have all been strengthened as a result of Covid-19.
“We have had fantastic support locally and I value that. We exchange ideas and share learning. I think we are working better together, recognising the issues quickly and reacting quicker. And dare I say it, Covid-19 has made this easier – we have a common purpose.”
SWAP also continues to facilitate the Fermanagh and Omagh Interagency Forum for Older People, a source of great support and exchanging ideas for supporting older people.
Protecting experience and knowledge
SWAP’s future looks busier than ever, but like many organisations they are having to think differently about planning future service delivery, particularly because older people are still regarded as vulnerable and undoubtedly the most impacted by the lockdown. Allison finds it hard to imagine things going back to how they were before the pandemic; the regular club meetings, the day trips or the cup of tea and a natter, all seem a distant memory. “I would love to see that back but right now we have to focus on supporting our members and local older people to stay safe.”
"We have to figure out a safe way out of lockdown for the people that are well and least at risk, within this sector. The frailer older person will require a different level of support. But the message seems to change every day and it is almost impossible to plan services. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, is a bad one today. I live in a shielded house, so I understand the worry and the fear that people have. I understand the sense of ‘when will this end?’ and ‘how much longer can I do this?’. It is overwhelming at times."
But however the future looks, South West Age Partnership will continue to advocate for older people, raising the important issues, asking the challenging questions and demanding answers from the people that are in power. Allison concludes:
“Local older people need a voice. That has been a huge part of our work since we were established in 1998 and we will keep doing that for as long as we can. We have a very active Board of Directors, all older people, who steer this ship - they know the issues on the ground. South West Age Partnership will fight hard to protect their experience and knowledge. We are so proud of our local older people - their resilience is amazing.”
For details of all the community support available in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, visit their website here.
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