With players’ support, Volunteering Matters is helping older people in Great Britain to safely enjoy precious social time and stay connected during the pandemic.
Volunteering Matters’ LifeLines project helps older people to stay active and engaged with their communities. Right now, the charity is continuing and expanding this work through online activities thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
In Brighton, Volunteering Matters’ LifeLines project has a successful history of empowering volunteers to engage with older people. It used to be a local, face-to-face project, where older volunteers ran sessions for people of similar age in community halls, sheltered housing and care homes.
Volunteering Matters has over fifty years’ experience of managing volunteer programmes that help local communities across the UK. Emma Thomas Hancock, director of services at Volunteering Matters says: “Volunteers are playing a huge role in responding to the crisis. Since the start of the first lockdown, the staff and volunteers at LifeLines have been doing everything they can to help older members of Brighton’s community to cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.”
As a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Volunteering Matters has developed a volunteer programme called Getting Together Matters to support community efforts in a co-ordinated, structured, safe and responsible way.
Volunteering Matters’ staff have adopted an innovative approach to ensure that older people can still safely enjoy precious social time and stay connected. During the first six months of the pandemic, a total number of 3,240 volunteers have helped over 15,000 people all over the country.
In Brighton, volunteers shop for weekly essentials and collect prescriptions. They are also telephone befrienders, providing a lifeline of contact for many who live on their own. All of this went ahead within the first week of the lockdown.
Getting older people online
Karen Bowlas, Project Development Manager of Getting Together Matters: “We used to have 40 weekly activities organised by older volunteers for other older people. Almost everybody, including the volunteers, had to isolate themselves. However, the volunteers still wanted to help and started with telephone befriending. We wondered if they could supply some of their activities online.”
Activities are also conducted by post and phone, and crucially LifeLines has enabled older people to get online. Volunteering Matters has helped volunteers to set up online group activities, including seated Pilates, quizzes, and singing, creative writing, reading, and regular ‘coffee mornings’ for a chat.
'Everyone wants a quiz'
It all started with a quiz on Zoom. Karen: “Everyone wants a quiz: it’s not too serious and it’s easy to join. It was a joy to see somebody who hadn’t had contact with other people suddenly able to use Zoom. They were all learning new skills pretty fast. People who learn new things get more confidence.”
They decided to set up more online activities like singing and exercise classes, but also Shakespeare and play reading. “We read ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, which was hilarious. The sessions are taken by a professional actress who puts the script on the screen and allocates the roles. The participants do brilliant voices and accents. Some are seeing other people for the first time in ages, which makes them feel more secure. We are all having a laugh, which raises our spirits in these terrible times.”
A real lifeline
After the first lockdown, Volunteering Matters received messages from people telling how the online activities kept them going and how it had been a real lifeline. Karen has moved out of her local role in Brighton and is now helping to accelerate the national Getting Together Matters programme, a digital approach to helping people cope with isolation and loneliness. “We decided this didn’t have to stay in Brighton. Indeed, it could go to anyone, all around the country.”
With a second lockdown rapidly approaching, Volunteering Matters is setting up mixed groups. Most groups have their original, local participants, topped up with people from across the country. “What could we do to use what we had learned to help other people all over the UK? How do you connect with people we don’t know about who are living in isolation?”
Opening new doors
Thinking like this has opened new doors for Volunteering Matters, in terms of engaging with people who might not have been reached before. “Which has its positives, because without the pandemic they might have been overlooked or forgotten.”
Now Volunteers Matters is connecting with more people by word of mouth, social media and local groups. Thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery the organisation is able to upscale and attract more volunteers who are helping to get the message out. Karen is reaching out to social prescribers: people who are very connected to the community and could advise others on what type of social interaction or activity they can do. “They are key to helping the most vulnerable and most isolated.”
Part of their challenge is letting people know they are there and becoming a trusted friend. Karen: “A lot of people don’t want to show their vulnerabilities or think they are a burden instead of asking for help. We need to be mindful of the ways we are engaging with people. Our words should be positive: we won’t ever ask if someone is isolated. We are all in this together. We would ask if you want to try new things or if you want to connect to other people. We positively move it to something we all need, and that’s that social connection.”
Online is here to stay
Karen thinks that online activities are here to stay, even after the pandemic. “I most certainly think that when the time is right, we will have a good blend of face-to-face contact and online get-togethers. Some people might not be able to get to any physical activity, but can go online. We could expand the number and the type of people who can do that. It makes our activities more accessible to anyone with any kind of challenge.”
Even before the coronavirus, television was the only form of activity or entertainment for almost 50 per cent of people living in care homes. “Let’s get into all these homes and give people the opportunity to engage in an online singing class or quiz. It doesn’t replace face-to-face contact, but it does help. Because it’s interactive, other participants know it’s you who is joining. They know your name. They may know a little bit about you and they might tease you about a joke you made. You can’t have this wonderful interaction on the telly.”