IN FOCUS

A Year of  Covid

We’ve been living with Covid for a year.
A year!

Below, a selection of regular Shine writers

and members of the Time to Shine team share their thoughts on a tumultuous twelve months.

What have we learned? How have we coped? What does the future hold?

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March 2021

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On March 23rd 2020, everything changed. The Prime Minister addressed the nation and announced a “lockdown”. People should stay at home if they could. Older people should take extra care, and many were told to “shield” – not to leave their house or flat at all. How has the pandemic affected older people in Leeds? And how about the people and organisations supporting older people in the city?

“When we went into the first lockdown last March, I did wonder how I would cope,” says Maureen Kershaw. “I’m very much a glass half-empty person. The only option I decided was to accept the situation and adapt accordingly!” A stoic view perhaps, but one shared by a lot of older people in the city. “When we were first locked up - sorry – I mean, when we went into lockdown, I was not too worried; it could only be for a few weeks,” says Betty Bennison. Many thought it wouldn’t last long – or that it’d all be over by Christmas. How wrong we were! Ruth Steinberg went from being busy to not quite so busy: “My diary was suddenly empty. All the things I had planned and were looking forward to vanished.” For some older people the impact was huge – and potentially life threatening.

A lot of older people in Leeds are supported by charities and other organisations. It was evident that many workers responded to the crisis quickly. Linda Glew, Programme Manager at Time to Shine, has a lot of contact with lots of partners who reacted swiftly. “Initially the third sector organisations stepped into action immediately,” she says. “They all met the immediate needs of their members. They did what that particular community needed.” So, amongst all the negativity, the positive story was that people cared enough about older people to work to support them in whatever  way they could. Linda continues: “It was a really fabulous community response. They did things like making sure food got to people who couldn’t get out. They had to do things like work out how to get money from older people to pay for groceries – this was a major hurdle for a while.” Many older people don’t use internet banking so couldn’t transfer money easily – nor could they get out to a cash machine. “They also did things like dropping off prescriptions, making sure older people got their medicines.” Lisa Fearn, monitoring and evaluation officer at Time to Shine agrees: “A lot of organisations had to help older people get credit on their mobile phones. People were used to going to the shop to get pre-pay vouchers.” It’s amazing to think that the simplest things (getting groceries, topping up your phone, going to a medical appointment) suddenly became incredibly difficult and stressful. It’s credit to the organisations involved that they were able to react so quickly.

The longer it went on,
the more organisations
realised that people
needed something to do.
Something to focus on
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A quick response then – but not joined up. “There were all these organisations doing their bit in their individual areas,” says Linda. “But then Leeds City Council stepped in, started to make it a more co- ordinated response. They set up 33 Hubs across the city to support people in need. Some of the organisations would normally have nothing to do with older people, but they stepped in to help.” These 33 Hubs proved vital for getting food and other necessaries to older people most in need. Not least this very magazine. It was decided early on that Shine would mainly be distributed through the Hubs. Throughout the last year, every organisation working with older people has credited Leeds City Council as looking out for older people and providing support where it’s needed. Even Look North star Harry Gration picked up on this. “The Council may have many problems, but it is a caring council,” said Harry in Shine’s Christmas Issue.

That immediate response wasn’t the end of the story though. Linda continues: “The longer it went on, the more organisations realised that people needed something to do. Something to focus on. It took a couple of weeks before people started to talk about activities.” So much of the support older people get in Leeds is face-to-face. Without this option, a lot of older people would be incredibly isolated. Often, workers turned to the internet to help connect people up. “A lot of our delivery  partners put lots of work into helping older people use things like Zoom,” says Lisa. “Researching Wi-Fi options, helping people get phones and iPads. Lots
of 1:1 support.” It was a whole new world for most people – even the staff. “I’d never heard of Zoom before this!” admits Lisa. “Before Covid, there was no reason to bother,” says Linda. But once older people are made aware of the benefits of using phones and tablets, they’ll make the effort. “It’s really highlighted that stereotype that older people can’t use technology,” says Linda. “They can if they want to – and they have.”

Activities started quite simply; just getting people connected was hard enough. A year on, the sheer number of activities and the creativity of the ideas is breath-taking. Scrapbook-making with Carers Connections; Carol Singing with Cara; Tai Chi with Connections Health for All; Soup Making with Feel Good Factor; Dancing with In Mature Company; WhatsApp chats with SAGE; Digital Coffee Mornings with Cross Gates Good Neighbours; Wildlife Walks and Photography with the Great Outdoors. These are a tiny amount of the hundreds of amazing activities now being offered by organisations working with older people in Leeds. And all using internet. “Having 100% Digital in Leeds has been vital,” says Lisa. “People have found them amazingly helpful in getting online.” Maureen Kershaw has enjoyed life online too: “Meetings, quizzes and even choral singing on occasion, are no longer subject to cancellation thanks to Zoom.”

Lest you think everything is positive, a word of caution. “There are still many barriers,” says Linda. Some people aren’t willing to go online. And many simply can’t afford it. It’s not all about digital. “People have done whatever they can to keep seeing people face-to-face,” says Lisa. “When the first lockdown ended you could go out walking, so some people did that.” Workers are desperate to get people back together face-to-face and there’s a move to get a “blended” approach that mixes online and offline. “Some people have actually said they’ve been less lonely in lockdown,” says Linda. People have started to make the extra effort. “One good story I heard was about MAE Care,” she continues. “The workers had a kit, and they went to older people’s doors with a folding chair, an umbrella and a face mask. So, the older person could sit in their house and the worker could sit in the rain and have a chat! Maintaining social distance but still connecting.” A lot of organisations delivered things to people’s doors. A parcel of activities to do at home. And even if people can’t do Zoom, they might like WhatsApp. “You get more banter on WhatsApp Group,” admits Lisa.
 
All these creative activities have come at a time of great need. We are all more isolated, but many older people are feeling it more sharply than others, even if they live with a partner. Regular Shine writer Betty Bennison shares her experience: “This virus is seriously getting to me and my husband Cyrus. We tried hard to work out ways of being occupied in isolation. We have not been able to see our families, except the one or two who live near and we can only see them in the car park. Not quite the same as entertaining in the apartment and feeding them cake. No friends can be visited or come around; two holidays have had to be cancelled; no shops open to browse around. We had plans to travel, but Covid stopped that. Of course, everyone is in the same situation but that doesn't make life any easier. As the weeks and months passed, in some ways we got better able to cope, in other ways it got harder.” Ruth Steinberg agrees: “What is difficult is the enforced separation from friends and family.” Who can argue with that? A lot of us have lost friends and relatives. Maureen’s sister died before the pandemic. “I’ve been grieving for my Sister who had died less than a year before it started,” she confides. “I missed her so much. I desperately wanted to pick up the phone and chat to her as we did several times a day.”

We’ve all found different ways of coping. For Maureen it’s “ensuring structure to every day and keeping busy.” Sometimes it’s the simple things. Betty Bennison: “Cy taught me Dominoes and we play most days for an hour or so in the afternoon. It's a great game and we enjoy playing especially as I am able to beat him now and then, so I must be getting better.” Ruth agrees: “I have learnt to be pleased with small things like walking in the woods near me and the sounds and changes that happened through the year. I’ve learned to find hope wherever I can. In the changing seasons, in how my neighbours offer help, in the amazing work to produce a vaccine, in knowing spiring is coming.”

We’re all well aware of the awful things Covid has wrought. The death tolls, the mental health crisis, the long-term effects of the disease. But, believe it or not, there are positive things to take from this year. “We’ve seen a huge community response,” thinks Linda Glew. “People have worked together to help each other. It’s broken down barriers – and people have thought more creatively about how to help older people.” Lisa thinks the crisis has highlighted mental health: “A lot more people are talking about their well-being. It’s reduced the stigma of saying you’re struggling. Because we’re really all in the same boat. Everyone’s having a hard time, in different ways.”
 
There is some light in the darkness. Maureen shares a poignant story: “One of the strangest (yet beautiful) things over the last year was a funeral gathering where I live. One of our neighbours having sadly passed away, his carers duly invited us all to assemble on the car park at the allotted time. Imagine our surprise when the hearse drove in and parked in the centre of the gathered throng. The staff of his support team led a short 'service' of memories, with surprises and humour, all delivered with the utmost dignity. Then, to the sound of Abba's Dancing Queen (his favourite song) the gentleman continued his final journey, to spontaneous applause and cheering.”
 
Betty has found solace with her husband Cryrus: “Having to be together 24 hours has drawn us closer, we have time to talk when there is no rush to go anywhere or do something. Time to take in things like enjoying the view from our balcony, especially beautiful during the recent snow. When we were able to go out, we had some lovely walks in the local parks.” A lot of older people live alone. Many of them have started talking to people in their street. “Neighbours from across the road came to see if they could do anything to help,” says Ruth. “We had never talked before. Now we are friends.”

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