Is this the new normal?
Every month we look at an issue that is important to older people at Leeds. This time we focus on the new post-lockdown world we have entered. How are older people feeling about returning to “normal” life? And what are organisations in the city doing to keep people safe and well?
Over the last few months, Covid restrictions have eased. We started the year with the whole country in full lockdown. Gradually, things have begun to seem more normal: indoor meetings; pubs and shops re-opening; hugging grandchildren. All these pleasures have been allowed as the lockdown has eased. It’s not a simple journey. The full opening of society (with no Covid restrictions) has been delayed, with uncertainty over how new variants are infecting people. But, so far, vaccinations have proved effective – far fewer people are getting seriously ill and fewer are dying from the virus than in previous “waves” of the pandemic. As a result, many older people have felt confident to start going out and meeting people. Lots of older people’s services in Leeds have re-instigated in-person meet-ups, after many months of reduced contact. How are older people in Leeds feeling about this “opening up”? How are you feeling?
“I feel so much better being back, and so much happier,” says Mildred. Mildred is part of Cross Gates & District Good Neighbours’ Scheme and has started attending a Flexercise class – in person! Ellie Dawson from Cross Gates interviewed people in the group. The class isn’t the only thing that Mildred has missed. “I’m really looking forward to going on holiday at some point, even to see my sister who lives in Derbyshire, just simple trips like that.” Monica is part of the same exercise class. “It’s wonderful to be back,” she says. “It’s like turning back time.” Monica and Mildred are just two of the older people who have started returning to some sort of “normality”. They seem really positive about the move to in-person events. “Now things are getting back to normal, I’ve got everything I need,” says Mildred. “In lockdown I just got on with my normal routine, I missed going out. But with being independent, I could still pop out when I needed to.” Monica didn’t really enjoy the enforced isolation either. “What kept me going in lockdown was company when it was available,” she says. “And waiting for the news to come on for updates.” Sometimes it’s the simple things. “I’m looking forward to being able to sit with a cup of tea and chat to everyone again,” says Monica. Like Mildred, Monica is hoping to travel at some point, if she can. “I’m hoping to visit my child in Italy,” she says. It’s clear that both women are thrilled at the prospect of being able to see each other at the class, but it does take time. “I’m slowly getting my mojo back,” says Monica.
It’s complicated. Older people
might be able to
meet up with others,
but some are choosing not to
Some older people are enthusiastic about the return to face-to-face activities; others are more cautious. We asked a few older people to reflect on 3 questions. Firstly: how do you feel about going back to face-to- face things? Secondly: what are you looking forward to, and what are you dreading?
And finally: Is there anything you would keep from this pandemic? You might ask the same questions of yourself as you read others’ opinions. Maureen Kershaw, a regular writer for Shine shared her thoughts on the “new normal”:
We are all hoping for a normal summer, not relishing an abnormal one, as with last year. I was longing to take up my volunteering role again, but when the invite came, I didn’t feel ready to return. Why am I suddenly feeling apprehensive, when usually confident in my role I wonder? I deduce it is the fear of not being in control. During lockdown I could skirt around people in shops or sit away from someone not wearing a mask on the bus. Now I will have to stand still whilst people come and speak to me! I will return – but not just yet.
A year ago, we’d to carefully plan trips to the shops and supermarkets, having to queue outside until called. However, we have moved with the times and seen increased capacity, less security and easing of rules which lift the spirits and give us hope. Many have been desperate to return to normal and carry on as though nothing has happened, whilst others (some of whom were forced to isolate) will feel uneasy at trying to pick up where we left off. I find myself somewhere in the middle. As might be said in Yorkshire “neither nowt nor summat”!
I rely on public transport. Buses and trains are busier now and I dislike feeling enclosed, rather than being spoilt by minimal passengers as of late. On the other hand, there are places to go and people to see!
New interests, friends and technology are positives I will take forward and I look forward to volunteering again. I just need that little push ...
Everyone is different and everyone will come to the new “unlocking” with a different attitude. Some will be trepidatious, others a bit more “gung-ho”. Another Shine regular, Mally Harvey, asked some friends what they were thinking. She explains their responses below:
I asked the three questions of 6 people whom I had met briefly, just before the first lockdown in March 2020. I consolidated that relationship through Zoom, arranging to meet weekly and play games, quizzes and conversations. The replies were interesting, in that there was a lot of commonality but also some very diverse views.
All were looking forward to picking up their previously-enjoyed activities, although a couple didn’t feel ready to resume those activities that had previously enriched their lives. They were apprehensive about mask-less, face-to-face close contact; there were worries about the efficacy of the vaccine against new variants of the virus. All felt they had to continue to behave responsibly and have an awareness that our lives have changed. There was a cautious excitement as our lives opened up, but also an apprehension about resuming activities because people tend to forget about social distancing. The activities that people were looking forward to resuming were diverse, but a common thread was the joy in being able to see family and friends again. Though Zoom, Google Meet, and all the other ways of contacting people had been amazing (and very welcome), there was nothing to replace being with people. Some thought this reluctance to mix was because they’d been so isolated for so long - only seeing people on a small screen. They would feel overwhelmed by the exposure to lots of people, which is something they had already experienced when they went into Leeds. One person wasn’t particularly bothered about going back to being face-to-face with people unless they were wearing masks and keeping socially distanced.
Some looked beyond their own needs and thought of the benefits to the young being able to get on with their lives. The pandemic has interrupted younger people’s lives so severely, causing untold mental health problems. There were hopes that the flexible working would continue – less road traffic benefits people, the environment and the planet. Also, there was a common hope that people would work together to avoid another pandemic. In the first lockdown, people had come together to clap for the NHS. There were spontaneous singing sessions. All this had engendered such a strong sense of community. My friends hoped that this would continue but some doubted it! Zoom has been very successful and all of us wanted this to continue, to some extent. It can help those who are housebound to access work, education, cultural opportunities or social interaction. Some of us want to continue with home deliveries of groceries, social meetings and social contacts, both locally and from across the globe. The pandemic has required people to seek other forms of interaction; this has been particularly appreciated, as it has enabled family and friends from across the world to ‘meet’ up. There was a dread expressed that we don’t learn anything from this pandemic and that we will continue to carry on jeopardising our health and our environment. But all of my friends were looking forward and were hopeful about the future.
So: it’s complicated. Older people might be able to meet up with others, but some are choosing not to, and others are choosing to retain social distancing and masks, even if it’s not enforced. What about older people’s services? It’s important to say that most services didn’t just stop supporting older people in their community over the last year or so; they just did it in different ways. Every month, we feature updates from organisations that have found amazing, innovative ways to keep older people connected. But there is a thirst to “re-open” services that have had to close. Recently, Ali Kaye from Time to Shine wrote an excellent piece on the Time to Shine website, summing up the situation. “For the Neighbourhood Networks, a return to regular services can’t come soon enough,” she writes. “For staff and volunteers as well as service users. Many people who use services can’t wait to get back into the swing of a more regular life.” Ali spoke to Darrell from Richmond Hill Elderly Action. “It will be a gradual re-introduction,” he says. “We’re already seeing members who are overtly anxious about coming back.” As Darell says, older people’s mental well-being has been severely affected. Ali Kaye uncovered services trying to help with these concerns. “Seacroft Friends & Neighbours has been running a mental health support group for six vulnerable people,” she writes. “They will soon start a peer support bereavement group.” Mental health isn’t the only difficulty. Many organisations have to alter the way they do things. She writes: “The numbers attending services are reduced due to social distancing and safety requirements, which also puts pressure on transport.” Reduced groups and different Covid-safety measures often mean activities cost more. Ali mentions a few organisations who are starting to return – and some who are waiting for restrictions to relax further. It isn’t easy!
Things are gradually returning. And it’s not only the older people who are full of emotion! Joan runs the Flexercise class mentioned earlier. “It’s great to be back,” she says. Joan has really missed working face- to-face with people like Monica and Mildred. “Seeing they’re back and healthy and enjoying themselves is a relief,” says Joan. Cynthia volunteers to organise the register at the class. “It’s so great to be back,” she agrees. “I’ve missed the company.” Joan assures, “They’re socially distant and the staff sanitise the chairs between each session, everything is in place that needs to be for safety.” A lot of work has gone on behind-the-scenes to make things safe for older participants. Ellie Dawson also spoke to Arun, who runs a Tai Chi class, which has returned to face-to- face meeting recently:
It’s like an exemplary set up. It’s caring, kind, and they get the job done. It helps me because one of the biggest difficulties I face teaching what I do is getting people in and keeping them. The measures in place at the moment make me feel very safe. We have fewer in the class, the space is nice and big, we keep the doors open so there’s good airflow. There is PPE, social distancing and sanitising areas between classes. There are a lot of people there who would normally consider themselves as vulnerable, but I think they feel confident coming. I’m so happy to be back, we’re off to a flying start, it’s always a great atmosphere. Apart from the numbers it feels exactly like before lockdown.
To get a bit more detail about the practicalities of these re-openings, we spoke to Jo Horsfall, CEO of Cross Gates & District Good Neighbours’ Scheme. “We’ve been doing a staged return,” says Jo. They started in April with a walking group and have gradually added more groups and activities. Covid restrictions means smaller groups, more cleaning – and no tea break. “Now we’ve got a trolley for them to take fresh water and fruit on the way out,” Jo assures us. Smaller group sizes mean fewer people can take part. “We’re trying to get everybody out at least once a week,” says Jo. Initially older people have been “very nervous, not really knowing what to do”, but they’ve settled into it now. The groups now see workers wearing visors, using hand sanitizers,
working with a one-way system – all to keep older people safe.
The Good Neighbours’ Scheme, like many other organisations across the city, really look out for their participants. “We’re ringing people, looking at their situation, what support they need,” says Jo. Often people need help to get back and many are anxious. “Do they need a few phone calls? Can we buddy them up with someone else in the group?” asks Jo. Many older people have found that, because they’ve been shielding at home, their physical condition has been affected. “For instance, there’s one lady who is now in a wheelchair, whereas before she just needed a stick.” Jo makes sure people who need transport have a home visit beforehand, to get a better idea of what they might need. “Some people have literally only walked a few metres in their house – from the bedroom to the bathroom and back.”
“It’s lovely to see people back,” says Jo. Whilst in the groups, strict social distancing applies – but recently Jo did observe a moving scene: “Two of the people from the walking group giving each other a hug. They were both double-vaccinated. But they’d had no human touch at all, so it was really nice to see.”
We all have examples of similar stories: reunions between families and friends; anxiety about going to a group or public space, dissipating the more we do it. There’s a huge feeling of relief when things start going back to normal. Ruth Steinberg, a regular Shine contributor, agrees:
Now I’ve had my vaccinations and the lockdown is easing I feel like I can breathe a bit easier. I realise that I have had an undercurrent of being scared all the time. However, I am still cautious - and I know that it will be a long time until the all-clear can be sounded.
My friends are important to me. I can’t wait to see them face-to-face. Things that used to be ordinary, run of the mill, now seem very exciting and scary, things like going to the cinema or theatre or meeting people in a cafe or inviting friends round for a meal.
However you are feeling, know that others are feeling it too. You might be feeling scared, excited, cautious, reckless, thrilled, anxious, confused, overjoyed, apprehensive – or any range of emotions. You might be taking every opportunity to see people, visit the cinema, cafes, museums – or you might be feeling more cautious. Whatever is going on for you, you are not alone. Getting back to the (new) normal is complicated!