Two women sitting on a sofa look through an old sketchbook

The attic project

Published : 16/03/20 | Categories: Volunteering,

Volunteers in Cardiff, the Vale and Newport are helping people to live independently by support them to declutter their homes.  As well as achieving practical goals such as enabling adaptations or repairs to the home, volunteers are trained to help people explore the memories associated with their belongings and to capture them in meaningful ways.

How it all began

The Attic project came about when two organisations, both working with older people in the community, realised that they could achieve more by working together.

The project name derives from the  fact that when older people were eligible of  grants for attic insulation in order to make their homes warmer,  they often found themselves unable to apply because they  could not  clear the attic sufficiently to allow workmen to gain access.  Care & Repair also found that the repairs they were scheduled to make to many people’s homes were inhibited by a surfeit of belongings and that no services were available to help with moving or disposing of them appropriately.

Meanwhile Voluntary Community Services (VCS) Cardiff (now merged with Safer Wales), was engaged in a heritage project capturing and documenting oral history.  They recognised the value of enabling and documenting stories associated with peoples possessions – not only as oral history but also as a way of  enabling people to explore  and distil their memories, to capture what is important in a tangible or digital form and to let go of ‘clutter’ that no longer has a  purpose.

The practical skills of Care & Repair and the expertise of Safer Wales volunteers in leading reminiscence and collecting and communicating stories came together in the development of the Attic project in 2017.

Consultation with community groups suggested that ‘light touch’ support with clearing attics and cluttered rooms was what was most needed.

The service

The service is for people aged 50 years and over. Referrals are self-referrals, or come from hospital or community health teams, social services, housing associations, environmental health or third sector organisations.  A caseworker makes an initial visit to assess the needs and to identify which services can best address them. Referrals may be made by Care & Repair, for example, to fire services for an assessment of safety in the home; advice may be given on decluttering and arrangements made for the removal of unwanted items and a review of benefit entitlements may be carried out. A volunteer from the Attic project may be requested.  In this case the project coordinator visits to discuss priorities, assess risks and define the task before matching the client with a volunteer, on the basis of availability, location and personal reasons such as pet allergies.

Volunteers generally spend two hours a week over a 10 week period with a client, although this is flexible. Volunteers can help the client to have a vision of what they would like a room to look like, and to make that happen’ said Catherine Linnie-Godden, reminiscence project co-ordinator at Safer Wales.

‘Sometimes all that is needed is for us to deliver some boxes, or to get at items which are out of someone’s reach, for them to sort through. Other times people just cannot cope. They need someone to listen and to motivate them’.

Volunteers take pains to dispose of unwanted items responsibly – by taking them to a charity shop or to someone who can make use of them, or for recycling.

Where individuals want to engage in reminiscence, volunteers spend time with them talking about the memories behind cherished possessions. They can help by documenting life stories through objects that hold significant memories taking photos and making a DVD for the client to keep or assist a client in assembling a memory box, for example. ‘Documenting these stories is about understanding who we are’ explained Catherine ‘it can be a conversation starter and a way of sharing what is important to us, with others’.

Making a difference

An impact report  ‘The Attic project – The Story So Far’, highlights the  extent to which clutter, and hoarding  can affect vulnerable people  and the difference the project has made to  improving home environments and to individuals’ health and wellbeing.

Sometimes rooms need to be cleared before a patient can be discharged, so that there is room for a bed or necessary equipment and nurses can gain access.

Katharine, for example, had to change a downstairs room into a bedroom, before her husband could be discharged with terminal illness. ‘I was paired up with two volunteers’, she said. ‘They had so much empathy. They didn’t make me chuck anything out but they made me want to. We gave thirty mugs to a homeless shelter. Knowing that things were going to a good cause made it easier.’ Katharine’s husband was able to spend his remaining time in the comfort of his home, with his family.

Jane needed help after a hip operation so that she had enough room to use a walking frame to get around her home.  She said ‘After I downsized, I kept telling myself I would go through all the boxes, but I was working full time and hobbling around with a bad hip’. She had no family living nearby and suffered mild depression. The attic project was able to help. Jane has now fully recovered from her operation and is attending the monthly reminiscence group.

Life stories emerge in the course of decluttering, which are important to clients and their loved ones. Catherine, Reminiscence Project Co-ordinator said, ‘one client talked about a book written by her husband which showed her how much he loved her.  Another had family heirlooms that they did not know what to do with. The volunteer arranged for them to be donated to Cardiff Story Museum. For one widow, tools that belonged to her husband continued to hold his memories; a volunteer was able to help her to talk about this, capture the memories and to let them go.

‘For one woman, craft making had been an important part of her life, although she could no longer engage in such detailed work. The volunteer helped to document memories and to find a suitable recipient for the equipment and materials that she had accumulated over the years.’

The Attic project has four main objectives:  enabling people to live more comfortably in their own homes, reducing isolation by enabling reminiscence, reducing the environmental impact by responsibly disposing of unwanted items and enabling volunteering.

The combination of practical and emotional support is what makes the Attic project    special. As well as achieving desired and sometimes urgent practical outcomes, it helps people to acquire decluttering skills, to share stories and memories and to reduce feelings of loneliness.

Lessons learned and challenges faced

Recruiting enough volunteers to keep up with the demand is a challenge.  Volunteer numbers have grown to 20-25 over 2 years, most of them over 50 years of age. Some prefer to focus on decluttering whilst others are drawn to the reminiscence work.  All volunteers are trained in both and are matched with clients, on the basis of their interests and location.  Often the first need is for decluttering in order to address an identified problem; reminiscence work often follows naturally.

There is a waiting list for volunteers (around 75 clients were waiting last summer) and so there is need to run a tight service which is fair and effective. This means that volunteers need to focus on one clear priority with each client.

‘We learned that we need to limit the time a volunteer spends with a client’ said Catherine, ‘as it is not a befriending service and the idea is not to create dependency. In the early days we found that clients were moving the goal posts so that the volunteer would stay in touch for longer’.

For clients, however, it can be hard after a volunteer has stopped visiting. Recognising the ongoing need, monthly reminiscence sessions were instigated in Cardiff and Newport, to which all clients are invited. Here they can meet other clients and volunteers and participate in reminiscence sessions. ‘We might ask people to bring an object that holds a significant memory, and to talk about it’ said Catherine. They can also find out about other sources of help or support in the community.

Although the anticipated need was for ‘light touch’ support, most of the work is with vulnerable individuals who have complex needs and are in some way ‘stuck’ in their situation. These are the individuals who have most to benefit from the project.

Where next?

Looking to the future, the project hopes to be able to better demonstrate its impact in reducing the frequency of falls,  improving fire safety and reducing delayed discharge from hospitals, as well as to show the connections between decluttering one’s home and the potential for reminiscence activity which reduces feelings of loneliness and benefits individual wellbeing.

The attic project currently operates in three counties but aims to expand to other parts of Wales also.

Case study by Helpforce Cymru. Helpforce is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales,

The Helpforce page on our website includes links to recent articles, blogs and case stories.

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