Clare CIC and the pandemic

Supporting older people at home in north Belfast during the Coronavirus pandemic

CLARE CIC – Creative Local Action Responses and Engagement CIC is a social enterprise based in north Belfast with the aim of supporting older people live healthy happy lives in their own homes for as long as possible. Established in 2013, we do this through a community development social work approach. We have a small team comprising 2 Social Workers, a Volunteer Co-ordinator and a Community Health Support Worker and work across all communities from a small office in Mount Vernon Community House.

In “normal” times we receive referrals from GPs, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and others and combine completing a social work assessment with the referred person with supporting their integration/reintegration into the life of the community. For example combating loneliness and/or social isolation with volunteer befriending, enabling people to attend and participate in health care appointments and connecting people with and supporting their participation in the activities of many other community based organisations in this part of the city.

Our clients – people aged 65+ who have agreed to accept our support – have been terribly impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and the associated necessary health protection regulations and for the past 8 months our entire focus has been on doing what we can, often in collaboration with others, to help meet their needs and provide support. We intend to carry on doing this at least until March 2021 and hopefully beyond.

We are grateful to the Public Health Agency, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland,NIHE, The Allen Lane Foundation, the Health and Social Care Board, Mount Vernon Community Development Forum, North Belfast Advice Partnership and the many other individual donors and to our staff and Board members, all of whom have enabled our service to adapt and continue during these terrible times.

Amy Stewart, our Community Health and Wellbeing Officer has been with us since March 2019 and is on the cusp of leaving to take up a new permanent post in the statutory sector has penned this personal reflection on her and our work these past 8 months and some of the challenges faced by our clients and staff during the period. It highlights some of the issues facing older people, the challenges of working to provide support during these times and also straightforward personal testimony of how relationship based work can make a huge difference and be hugely rewarding.

Clients names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Amy’s story

Work since start of COVID has been a roller-coaster. We have had to change completely the way we work and ensure we are meeting clients needs in a safe manner. Working from home is something that is completely new to me and it has had many benefits but also a range of challenges. One thing I will say is we have been on the ground the whole way throughout the pandemic offering not only telephone calls providing emotional support but also in practical ways supporting our clients.

At the beginning of COVID we began by making weekly phone calls to clients on our caseload. These telephone calls were to check in with clients and make sure they were keeping themselves safe. One thing that became apparent very early on was that people’s mental health was really being affected by COVID restrictions and the uncertainty about the future. The same problems were arising with clients who were feeling low, lonely, frightened and extremely isolated. They were highlighting problems they were facing for example, no shopping, no money, no contact with people, day centres closed, groups finished. I have found the telephone calls really difficult at times, quite often you are listening to vulnerable people who are really anxious, sad and struggling to get their days in. I have found that a lot of our clients will not phone us because they don’t want to feel they are burdening us, so quite often when we contact them on a weekly basis they are at a crisis point.

Mental health was something that has been a problem from the start of COVID however there has been a noticeable decline in a lot of our clients mental state. We decided that we would order some colouring books, cross words and give them out to clients to give them something to do during the day and keep them mentally stimulated. A lot of our clients who didn’t require shopping were asking when we could visit. I have done a lot of visits throughout COVID. These visits have been weather permitting, as they are over the fence chats. This has been one of the best ideas we have had during COVID as it has allowed us to see how physically affected a lot of our clients have been. Face to face, clients are opening up more than over the phone and sharing how difficult this pandemic has been for them.

After seeing clients and how physically affected their mobility had been during COVID we decided that we should start social distanced walks. This was around July time when the weather was good. This has been a fantastic success. Clients are doing weekly walks which is really improving not only their confidence, balance and mobility but also their mental state. Clients are really enjoying getting out in the fresh air and just doing something normal.

Another thing I done during COVID was made Hope Jars For Clients. These jars were decorated for both males and females and they were filled with all their favourite sweets. These jars were an opportunity for clients to write on paper their thoughts/ feelings/ aspirations and something positive. Every time they wrote a message they took a sweet out of jar. This was a great success. One aspiration X wrote was to be able to get out walking, we were able to take X weekly walks at a social distance. X mobility and confidence is really improving.

From the very beginning I have been doing shopping weekly for clients. I would phone them on a Tuesday and get their shopping lists to see them through the week. I have done personal shopping for 10 clients, some weekly others on regular basis. These clients would have no one to do shopping for them if I wasn’t doing it. The shopping has been really rewarding, I know that I am doing something practical for them that they are not able to manage themselves at the moment.

I have loved my work with CLARE during COVID. It has been very rewarding in some ways for example, shopping, walks, being a listening ear/lifeline over the phone, helping people access money. But there havebeen some challenges. I have found the telephones calls very emotionally exhausting. COVID has been a worrying time for everyone and often I have found myself so bogged down worrying about clients that I have put myself and my own mental state to the side. I have to say our team has been fantastic, we have all pulled together and I know that if I ever need any help/support every member of staff is supportive.

I have loved getting the intergenerational work between CLARE and WEE Chicks back up and running. Last week we had our first zoom for international food day with clients and children. It was a great success. We have loads of plans for this to run fortnightly and it is very exciting. Clients are really looking forward to this. We have just recently ordered some tablets that are going to be given out to clients next week. One of my clients is keen to access the library training courses and also Zoom with her sister in Canada who she hasn’t seen in quite a while.

Personally the whole COVID experience has been very difficult work. It has been difficult to continue motivating yourself to work from home after 8 months but has also made me realise how much a lot of our clients rely on us. One of our clients has said that we are their lifeline. I think the real beauty of CLARE is the fact that we all care a lot about our clients and their physical/ mental wellbeing is our priority. I have loved watching how much clients are grateful and appreciative for our service.

Client Y: I have had telephone contact with Y from start of COVID offering a lot of emotional support. Y loves crafts and has missed doing these at day centre. Y got colouring books, word-searches, hope jar. Y has been getting personal shopping weekly during covid, over the fence chats fortnightly and socially distanced walks weekly. The social distanced walks for Y have been a real achievement. Y broke her hip a few years back and hadn’t been out walking since this. She is loving seeing neighbours in the street and being recognized to be doing well. She is also engaged in intergenerational work and is keen to link into some of the Library NI trainings. I have emailed link to her.

Client Z: I linked Z with the North and West Belfast Soup Kitchen and Ben Madigans who were delivering food for Z throughout the week. This was a great help for him as he was unable to make his own meals as his Parkinson’s disease was progressing. Z made a decision to go into Nursing Home permanently after short stay in hospital post surgery. Every week I will phone Z and chat with him. He knows that even though he is now in a Nursing Home we will always be here for him and at the end of the phone. He knows that if he has any concerns/ issues he only has to give us a call. This has been a great comfort for him. I have planned to visit Z in his nursing home when restrictions have lifted and the nursing home will be in touch.

Client X: I have been doing personal shopping for X who has been a new client throughout Covid. X has Parkinson’s and her mobility is extremely poor. She has little family support. I have formed a great relationship with X whose eyes light up when I call with shopping on a Wednesday. We have a lot in common. X told me last week that her legs are in agony and very itchy. She had been in touch with her GP who had advised she took pictures and emailed them through to surgery. X has never emailed and doesn’t have a camera to take pictures. I was able to take pictures and email them through to the GP. X was extremely grateful for this as the Doctor will now be able to treat her problem. If I hadn’t done this she would have had to go to A and E or else just stick the pain. X is going to receive a tablet next week. This will allow her to Zoom her sister overseas who she misses greatly. The tablet will really improve her quality of life and allow her to search the internet and possibly be able to do her shopping online eventually.

Client A: A is also a new client during COVID. She was referred for an emergency shop as a temporary thing until the Health Trust had a shopping call set up. Four months later and we are still doing shopping for A. A is 90years old and has a disabled dependent living at home. . There have been a lot of issues with the care package for her dependent which I have been able to pass onto the social worker. I have provided a lot of emotional support to A who has been extremely distressed about this. I have also done other tasks including taking herclothes to the launderette and will also be helping her access money.

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