For many of the UK’s 2.2 million ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people who were advised to shield at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving home for the first time in many months was a daunting thought.
For some, long term mental health issues were exacerbated by anxiety around the virus, while for others, being housebound meant a marked deterioration of physical fitness. Both will be huge challenges for older people now wishing to reconnect with their communities.
According to a 2021 report from The British Red Cross, more than a quarter of UK adults worry that if something happened to them no one would notice. Covid-19 has created barriers which are likely to cause isolation and loneliness to become entrenched for many more people.
That’s why from North London to rural Cheshire and Leicester, social prescribing workers are supporting older shielders back out into a world they haven’t seen in a year. With trips starting at walking to the front gate, eventually older people are supported to join community farms, theatre groups, and local events.
The Ageing Better in Camden Community Connectors, established in 2018 to link older people to groups and activities happening in their local area, were there for older people at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. They started with the question: “What do you need?”
For the first months of the pandemic, the Community Connectors, led by Georgia Kurowska Kyffin, ensured older people had access to food and medicines.
Later, their clients told them “I need to see someone face-to-face”.
“We started the walks because there was clearly a huge need,” says Georgia, Community Connectors Project Manager at Age UK Camden.
“Andy*, who we’d supported before the pandemic, told me that during lockdown he felt like a prisoner in his own home. He’d lost his job and with that, he’d lost the structure to his days.
“Andy told me that he felt so confused by the changing Covid-19 rules that he stopped going out in case he got things wrong.”
“It is so important to see people and be with them, standing side by side.”
“I supported Andy to do computer training at a local community garden. But then London went into another lockdown and the sessions were cancelled. So instead, we went for walks together.”
Georgia also walked with Annie*, an extroverted theatre lover who had been a performer. Annie lives alone and had always kept busy out and about, preferring not to be alone at home.
“Annie told me that when she went out all she could see were other people together, and that reinforced that she had no one,” says Georgia.
The team referred Annie to the See Through Theatre cabarets, which took place outside sheltered housing blocks, where she got involved in socially distanced singing and dancing.
These activities, which for people like Annie and Andy could be the only social interaction in their week, were cancelled during the further lockdowns. It was then the one-to-one walks with the Community Connectors became essential for some of the most isolated older people.
A fear of the unknown
The Community Connectors have been matching volunteers with people who needed support to get out for the first time. Liz was a ballet dancer, but being locked down dented her confidence so much she didn’t even want to go to the local shop.
“We’ve never been through anything like this. We were told to stay in, so going out was a fear,” says Liz. “You want to cling to security, don’t you? I was finding it difficult to get my confidence back.
“Recently five of my friends have died. A neighbour once told me that the worst thing about getting older is losing your friends one by one. I lost friends when I most needed them.”
Of her volunteer Liz says, “Alexandra is so helpful and positive, she’s got me through so much just by walking with me and talking. It was just so wonderful to get out after being in for so long. When we went out I picked some winter jasmine and brought it back home to enjoy the smell.”
Rebuilding physical strength
For many older people, shielding had a detrimental impact on physical strength and mobility. John* had become physically unable to leave his flat. With the help of Phillipa, a Camden Community Connector, he ventured outside and felt the sun on his face for the first time in months.
Prior to the pandemic, Pila, was very active in the community, attending the local Community Centre almost daily. During lockdown she fractured her hip in a fall. She went from being very active to being isolated indoors.
Pila was matched with volunteer Michael who loves to hike. Together, they walk. Both have lived in Camden for many years, and they enjoy sharing memories as they stroll. Building physical strength happens quietly in the background while they walk.
“Building strength, confidence and socialising has worked wonders for her,” Michael says.
The Digital Divide
For many people, online groups and activities were an alternative means of social connection during the Covid-19 lockdowns. However, a 2020 survey found that almost half of Camden’s Community Connector clients did not have access to the internet, and 60% of those said they did not want to.
“Many of the people we work with can’t afford to get a device or a WiFi connection, or don’t have the skills,” says Georgia.
“I don’t dispute that online provision is important for people, and lots of brilliant online provision has been offered during the lockdowns,” she continues, “but for people not online, the lack of face-to-face options has been utterly isolating.”
What needs to be done?
According to the British Red Cross Lonely and left behind report, Covid-19 has created barriers which are likely to cause isolation and loneliness to become entrenched for many more people.
So what should policy makers keep in mind as restrictions are further lifted? “Better mental health provision”, says Georgia. “The impact of the pandemic on mental health has been huge.
“Before the pandemic we worked with people who had mental health issues and other barriers to connecting with their communities. I hope this is the moment when people realise what it means to really include people with additional barriers. It’s not just ‘here’s an activity – go for it!’”
Georgia says duplicating services and activities should be avoided, allowing more resource for diverse options and for the provision of skilled professionals who know how to work with people with higher needs.
As we move forward into post-Covid recovery, Community Connectors have a key role to play in helping older people to overcome complex obstacles to social connection.
They provide skilful one-to-one support to identify and tackle multiple issues which prevent someone from getting out, attending activities, and making friends. Unlike some other services, they can respond flexibly to changing Covid-19 restrictions.
Funding for Community Connector services will, therefore, be essential in preventing an increase in the number of older people confined to home, unable to reconnect to their community and becoming increasingly isolated and lonely.
However, there is still a lack of activities and constraints on access to services that older people need. Alongside funding for Community Connectors, continued funding of face-to-face groups and activities and improved access to specialist services will be essential for Community Connectors to help older people reconnect with their communities as we unlock from multiple Covid-19 lockdowns.
Read the new report on the work of the Community Connectors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
*some names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals