Age UK and the National Lockdown: ‘The Community Were Fantastic’

How has the pandemic affected working, social and political life for people with increased vulnerability to Covid-19 because of disabilities or long term health conditions? Our Covid-19 Community Reporter, Rosy Bremer talks to Alex Massey from Portsmouth’s Age UK.

Rosy Bremer: How did the lockdown affect your clients, who are amongst the most vulnerable to COVID-19?

Alex Massey: It’s well known that loneliness is fuelled by isolation. As soon as the lockdown hit, it was a big red alert to everyone here that we needed to kick into gear and make sure that these people were safe. Even if we couldn’t go and see them, we checked they were at least safe and they had food in the cupboards and that type of thing. Lack of interaction and not seeing family members for a prolonged period of time was extremely difficult for them.

Although we were still able to help with basic care needs and making sure that they were clean and safe around the home, not being able to see people, feeling lonely, feeling isolated, and not knowing when it was going to end, that was a major concern. I think if they had a date to look forward to, it could have been easier for them to cope, but it was the unknown side of it that I think they struggled with. That’s why the telephone befriending and the welfare calls that we made were so important.

I think the national statistics were that about six million people aged 70 and over in Great Britain were worried about the effect Covid-19 is having on their life, especially their mental health. Obviously we’re only Age UK Portsmouth, but that was highlighted very early on. Any services that were suspended or weren’t able to work to their full capacity were asked to make sure that they were contacting clients, making sure they were safe, building rapport with them, being able to chat to them – not just about the pandemic but trying to take their mind off it.

We would talk to people about what is it that they had been able to do while they’ve been at home. We would ask, is there anything, any arts and crafts that you picked up? It could be something as simple as asking about what they’d been watching on TV. We’ve got some staff members and volunteers who love EastEnders and they’d have a chat to them about EastEnders. The important thing was just having someone to talk to and sometimes taking their mind off the worry of the pandemic.

Did the community as a whole chip in and support Age UK in Portsmouth and the work you were doing with older people in the city?

The community were fantastic and we had plenty of donations from people who just wanted to help out. We were very lucky with a lot of the local supermarkets who would donate as well. Morrisons at Anchorage Park have been absolutely fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about them.

We’re quite close to Manor Park School and they were fantastic as well. They would come with packs of shopping for us to donate. I’m not sure if that was a project that the kids at the school were doing but they donated a lot of food parcels. They were excellent and the community in general was great.

We worked with HIVE Portsmouth [which] was in charge of bringing everyone together to help each other out. They would help us with a lot of donations and they would deliver food. We could put orders in for particular things if we had people that were asking for them. I think over 760 parcels were delivered across Portsmouth and the surrounding areas. We tried to help everyone out that we possibly could. Those who asked for support received it, but we also would go through our clients and ask them if they needed help. It’s impossible though to find out if we did get to everyone who needed us. Some people put up a barrier and didn’t want any help or didn’t want anyone coming near them, which was fair enough. What we did though is we contacted everyone on our current database to see if they needed a food parcel. We weren’t just resting on our laurels and hoping that they would call us.

It’s been really a joint effort between everyone. HIVE were instrumental in getting our PPE and making sure that we could help people safely. Caroline Hayworth and the team are doing unbelievable work. I can’t be more happy with how everyone banded together; it was excellent. I think it really showed how Portsmouth can work together on this. I think it has been a blueprint for us to show that we can do this and we can hopefully help, not just the people we helped before but maybe even more.

During the height of the lockdown, and even in the ongoing stages of the pandemic many people’s social, work and cultural lives played out online.  How easy was it for your clients to switch their lives online?

I think it’s one of the biggest things that our older people were struggling with, the change to how everything’s online and how everything’s now digital – whether it be new bus timetables, booking an appointment with a doctor or giving a meter reading. Straight away that creates a barrier for somebody [to] be able to do that. Online shopping was obviously a real issue and that’s why our personal shopping and our emergency food parcels were so important.

I know a lot of older people don’t know how to go online, don’t have an email address and the basics of digital tech. We’ve tried to think about that going forward. Even before the pandemic, we ran IT sessions here at the Centre to try and help people. We had great volunteers who would go through the things that people were asking about, whether it be, how do I set up an email, how do I do an online shop, how do I do Facebook, how do I do Skype?

So we were already aware, and we were doing what we could, but there’s only so much of course that we could do.

We’re now looking at setting up a digital library with iPads and things like that where older people can borrow it from us. We will put apps on there that they might need: Skype, Zoom, whatever it is, we download it. As long as it’s safe and appropriate. They’ll be able to borrow them for a week or two weeks, and use that to do online shopping, to contact their loved ones that they’ve not been able to see, especially if there is a new lockdown or something of that nature. We’re in the midst of setting that up at the moment and we’re hoping that will be out soon, so people won’t feel so alone. Other charities have done the same. The Goldies charity uploads song sessions and things for people to log into which has been great.

Talking Change from Solent Mind have been excellent as well. They put a lot of their sessions online on Zoom and YouTube so that people can just access them. We’ve been able to continue a good relationship with them throughout this because obviously, like I said earlier, loneliness and isolation leads on to more mental health issues down the line.

The digital library is something that we’re really excited about and we’re really looking forward to getting that out there.

Are there any other services that you’re developing in response to the evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic?

Yes, as well as the digital library, we’re also busy creating activity packs. These are for people at home who aren’t able to go out. Maybe they’re still shielding, isolated, or just don’t feel comfortable yet going out; there are a lot of older people in all those categories. The idea is to keep their mind stimulated, so they’re not just sat in front of the telly all day  and they feel that they’re achieving something. These are completely free of charge.

A volunteer delivers them, steps back from the door safely, complete with mask, and social distancing. The pack includes things like a puzzle book that has crosswords, word searches, adult colouring, colouring pencils, some hand held puzzles like Rubik’s Cube type things to go with their dexterity and keep their fingers going. We’ve also included the NHS advised chair exercises for balance and strength and things like that that they can do. It includes paints with canvases so they can do some arts and crafts as well, knitting, all sorts of activities for all sorts of interests. We’ve included soil, seeds, and pots so they can do a little herb garden on their windowsill or in the garden.

We created these packs because we are aware that not only is it the isolation, but also not being able to do anything, not having anything in your hand, not having anything to occupy your mind. That means you worry more, that you’re more lonely, isolated and so on.

If you know anyone who could benefit from an activity pack, please give us a call, we’ll be happy to deliver one. We’re currently delivering from PO1 up to Gosport/Fareham and the areas in between.

We’ve tried to think what will improve mental health and physical wellbeing as well. So I’d love to get that out there a little bit more because we’ve got the stuff here at the centre ready to go.

Is there anything that local and national government needs to do to provide better support for your organisation and your clients?

We need more transparency; we need decision makers to be completely open and honest with us.  In fairness, a lot of them have been great, a lot of them have been flying the flag for us and HIVE and the other organisations, but I’d like to see just a bit more transparency. And on the funding side, the government have made short-term funding available for charities which is amazing. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to prevent really good charities from having to close their doors if they don’t receive that funding.

So will there be funding for voluntary sector organisations going forward post-pandemic? Will the charities who don’t get the funds have to significantly reduce capacity? Are they going to be able to keep all of their workers?

We have been lucky. For such a dense population in such a small area, I think it’s proven on the current figures that although the infection rate is rising, it’s still looking better than other places. And also we’ve been extremely lucky with a lot of our councillors and MPs who have been really flying the flag for us.


S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:

  • voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
  • small businesses and self-employed people
  • BAME communities
  • people with disabilities

We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.

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