The Reconnect 50+ project in Merthyr has been keeping in touch with isolated older people in new ways during the pandemic.
Reconnect 50+ Project is a volunteer led mentoring/befriending project whose aim is to reconnect the lonely and isolated out of their homes back into the community. Trained volunteers run activity groups in different locations in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf, encouraging social interaction, helping clients to regain their confidence in meeting others, to improve their self-esteem and maintain their independence. The project promotes positive mindsets and improved health and well-being.
Helen McShea, Reconnect Project Manager, is employed by Safer Merthyr Tydfil and oversees the project, which offers various volunteering opportunities to those who are over 18. Full training is provided, to fulfil all of the volunteering roles within the project.
Referrals are made by various agencies and self-referrals are also received – anyone who is 50+ and struggling with loneliness and isolation is welcome. Reconnect 50+ offers a 12 week mentoring service, telephone support and the opportunity to try out different activities in small activity groups, depending on clients’ needs and interests.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
At the start of the pandemic, lockdown caused all these social activity groups to close, so the project moved to providing a telephone support service on a weekly basis. Volunteer mentors kept in touch by phone as best they could but generally the phones used were old style phones that didn’t allow for communication by WhatsApp messaging or video calls. Furthermore, some clients were hard of hearing so a video call allowing lip reading would have helped.
Thanks to colleagues in Voluntary Action Merthyr Tydfil (VAMT) and the local authority the Reconnect 50+ project was encouraged to apply for a Friend in Need grant. These grants, which were made available to support the Welsh Government loneliness and isolation strategy, were used to support a number of befriending projects in Merthyr.
CONNECTING THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
‘We focused on IT because we needed to improve our equipment to connect with each other and our clients better’ Helen explained. ‘We were able to buy phones for our volunteers and some pre-loaded Samsung Galaxy tablets, which are fabulous, enabling some of our clients to connect with relatives who live far away. We’ve got a client in his 80s who is now connected with family in Australia.
‘Volunteers were really encouraged in their role, to have new equipment so that they can communicate better with their clients and each other. They were doing a lot of telephone calls; not just ‘being friendly’ calls but dealing with some very serious issues and upsets and offering emotional support and a listening ear.
‘Volunteers can often begin as clients attending a group, who want to get more involved in helping others. Volunteers are the central core of the project. They give so much of their time and enjoy helping others.’
‘Support and training opportunities for volunteers is so important.’ said Claire Williams, Health and Wellbeing Manager, VAMT ‘The grant also funded training for volunteers, in first aid, recognising resilience, suicide prevention and bereavement support.’
Although some groups have begun to meet up once again, not everyone is ready to come back. Now, however, there are alternative ways to keep in touch, thanks to new equipment and also to newly acquired digital skills. ‘We have started up some of our groups again and been able to introduce tablets to our clients and to teach them how to use them’ said Helen. ‘We have recently been able to employ a young person through the Kickstart programme, who goes to all our activity sessions, introducing and teaching the older generation how to use IT – and they are enjoying themselves, too.’
Helen expressed her delight at what the funding has been able to achieve ‘We want to say a big, huge thank you to VAMT for the Friend in Need money’ she said.‘. ‘It will change many lives, both amongst our team of volunteers and especially our clients’.
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,
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