One Saturday in lockdown, Ailsa picked up the phone at The Welcome In Community Centre. An elderly woman had been referred by the local council for a food parcel.
“We worked every Bank Holiday and on Saturdays, because the need was consistent,” Ailsa said. “I thought, I needed to get a food parcel to this lady that day. So, I went round. She lived in a little flat at the end of a cul- de-sac, so nobody would walk past, it was hidden away. She had big posters in the window saying, ‘Please give me food. I’m hungry. I can’t get out.’ I dropped the bags at the doorstop. She was in an horrendous way – you could tell she was a very poorly lady, and very nervous about touching the bags, but she needed the food. She’s someone we supported for a couple of weeks and she ended up in hospital. The desperation there was awful.”
Ailsa has been Manager at OPAL (Older People’s Action in the Locality) since 2004.
With cramped offices and a lease change giving a three-month notice, OPAL decided to embed certainty into their future by fundraising to buy a derelict pub, The Bedford Arms, and renovate it for their Welcome In Community Centre.
Key Fund finance enabled OPAL to move to the new premises in 2017, and for the space to become usable and income generating. With three investments in total, the last tranche for £50,000 in 2020, completed the interior.
OPAL gives direct support to 700 older people. Its services cover a wealth of health and well-being issues. It partners with local schools to create social and volunteer opportunities for young people.
The centre was also used for youth groups, MP surgery, smoking cessation and Arabic classes with its café used widely by the local community.
Before the first lockdown, they had already received worried calls from older members.
“We very quickly put ourselves forward as the Covid-19 responders for the Leeds 16 community.”
“We talked to all of the local groups, the churches and councillors to ask what can we do together? All of the information about Covid was online, so that meant a lot of people, including older people we support, didn’t have access to this information. We delivered 1300 leaflets across the community, with information on where to go for support, who to contact.”
We put together a leaflet, and a request for volunteers as our 100 existing volunteers were mostly over 60 years old, so we knew they would have to isolate and be unable to help us.
With the centre closed in lockdown, just four of the 10-strong staff team worked at the centre, with the rest working remotely. Knowing their existing 100 volunteers were older and at-risk, they worked with Voluntary Action Leeds to recruit 200 new volunteers.
All 700 elderly members were phoned to check they were ok and to check if they needed support.
“We had people who were absolutely desperate and had nobody to do their shopping for them or didn’t have a computer to do online shopping. Many who did have a computer couldn’t secure an online shopping slot. There were some very vulnerable people left without access to food.”
400 people were matched with phone buddies, to receive regular phone calls.
“We still have about 300 people still receiving phone calls. Over the year some really nice friendships have developed. As things start to open, one of our plans is to have a meet and greet session for the phone buddies who they’ve been talking to for the last year but never actually met – that’s a real positive that’s come out of all this.”
As Covid responders, referrals came from the council and from within the local community. OPAL delivered emergency food parcels, prescription pick-ups and books, jigsaws and knitting. They also had volunteers doing dog walking, transport to appointments and latterly, vaccination transportation.
But food was the biggest issue. Initially catering to their lunch club members, freshly cooked hot meals were delivered three times a week and later extended to five days. They deliver over 100 meals per week.
“We’ve sent hundreds and hundreds of food parcels over the year. Some are for the same people stuck in poverty, for others it’s been temporary while isolating.”
Working for a charity for older people, Ailsa was used to dealing with issues such as isolation, but the lockdown saw the most vulnerable people – of any age – were hit the hardest.
“The deterioration in some of our members has been horrific to watch. The men’s group is the one group that I would manage. They were a frail group, with a mix of health needs, Parkinson’s, sight or hearing impairment – a whole range of issues – they were a really, really lovely group of men,” Ailsa said.
“Now when I look at that group, at least a third has died. It’s not Covid, it’s other health issues. I think if they’d been coming out and been active, they could well still be going. Of the men that are left, about a third of them have deteriorated – mainly their mental health – to the extent that we won’t be able to get them back to the same level that they were at. These people are a group of friends, and they’ve lost each other. They are older people who don’t have a big circle of friends as a lot of their friends will have passed away, or their family live far away. It’s absolutely awful.”
Re-opening, the team plan small socially distanced support groups to try and reassure those who are anxious, have lost confidence, or mobility.
“People have said they feel safer at OPAL than anywhere else. So, we’re really hot on making sure people sanitise their hands, keep their distance and wear masks.”
It’s been a huge pressure for Ailsa and her team. They had to cope with situations they wouldn’t normally as Covid responders, including suicide attempts.
“For the first half of lockdown there were many nights I would go home and my husband is vulnerable, so I’d strip down, put my clothes in the wash, go in the shower, and then have a good cry in the shower, and come out and deal with my kids. It was very emotional and exhausting.”
After 17 years in her role, she is incredibly committed. One time, she cleared the house of an elderly man who had died after his daughter was unable to travel from her home in Spain during the lockdown.
“There’s been some very sad and difficult moments, but very rewarding ones too. It’s a life changing job. We are changing lives for the better. There are people that tell us quite regularly they don’t know what they’d do without OPAL. It’s a really special job to do. The staff team all have that passion and are vibrant and enthusiastic, as hard as it is sometimes.”
Unlike statutory services that close cases, their elderly members have been with them for years, ‘like an extended family’. They ensure they have opportunities to engage with all the community not just their peers, and plans are to use their café to take that to ‘the next level’.
Financially, Ailsa has had sleepless nights, as funding becomes more competitive, but her goal is to make the building as sustainable as possible.
“We are very dynamic in the way we’re moving forwards with the café, with the room hire, and partnership work. We’re currently doing a joint project with one of the local churches and a local cluster of schools on Holiday Hunger, it was a joint grant we applied for and we organised a volunteer to do pizza making sessions over Zoom to local school children. It’s about addressing a need in the community. Ultimately, it sounds cheesy, but it’s making a stronger community.”
More than that, they’ve been, and are, a literal lifeline.
Key Fund support was, Ailsa said ‘integral’ to purchase their community building.
“We have a Covid secure building, and having the building has been phenomenal. The space means we can react and turn things around in 24 hours. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done if we didn’t have this facility, it’s been a massive asset for us.”
“In fact,” Ailsa said, “We are having a celebration event soon, where people can come together, socially distanced in the building and grounds, and just celebrate that we’ve made it this far; a marker to say, let’s start doing things together again.”
A Volunteer’s View
After Nikki Houseman’s mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she decided to take redundancy from her full-time job at the University of Leeds so she could take care of her, and support her dad.
“My dad was looking after her, and she increasingly needed more help, and he was relying on my sister a lot. The opportunity for redundancy came up, but then I wasn’t expecting the pandemic.”
She took redundancy at the end of June 2020.
“Unfortunately, at the end of August, my mum went into a care home because she was really struggling with stairs and they didn’t have a downstairs bathroom. My dad needed a minor operation, so he was finding it harder to look after her. She went in initially for respite for a couple of weeks, but then dad’s operation came through in October and it seemed kinder for her to move in permanently. So, she didn’t need looking after anymore. I couldn’t even see her for quite a while in the lockdown.”
Suddenly she had unexpected time on her hands. She responded to OPAL’s call for volunteers with her 21-year-old daughter, Lucy, who was living at home and out of work.
It wasn’t just something for Lucy’s CV or to fill time. Nikki wanted to give back to OPAL.
“My parents were supported by OPAL. Once my mum had the diagnosis, social workers mentioned OPAL and it became very important to them. They’d been going for about four years before Covid. They used to go on a Monday lunchtime for lunch, which gave dad a chance to speak to other people, and there were people to help with mum if he needed it. He’s not one for overly chatting but he has a few favourites there that he’ll have a conversation with.
“Every fortnight on a Tuesday they went to the ‘Remember When’ group, which was specifically for people with Dementia and their carers, which dad found really useful. They’d go for little walks, or have games like skittles, or show films. Dad isn’t one for showing it, but I know he found a lot of emotional support there. They helped with practical things too, he applied for a blue badge for disabled parking and OPAL sorted all that out for him, filled the forms, took his picture.”
With her dad now living alone at age 83, after 50 years of marriage, OPAL continues to play an important role, and he plans to go back to the lunch club.
“They’ve been a Godsend for my dad particularly. Without them, it would have meant for me and my sister a lot more pressure on us to provide the emotional support and practical things like cooking meals. They’ve set up a telephone buddy system, so my dad had a buddy ring him, she still rings now, and he’s really enjoyed chatting to her listening to what she’s been up to, just feeling part of society I suppose rather than stuck in your own bubble.”
Nikki and her daughter delivered hot lunches as volunteers, thinking it would just be for a few weeks.
“We’d just make small talk when we dropped off the meals, but if someone was down, we’d mention it to the team at OPAL. There was a 90-year-old lady who didn’t go out much at all. The dinners have been a Godsend for her. It gave her someone to say hello to and a nice hot meal.”
The experience Nikki said was ‘uplifting’ during a difficult time with her mum.
“It’s been very difficult actually. It did feel a little bit like we’ve just put her away, and because you can’t visit properly, you’ve just shut the door on her, which feels awful. We alternate visits once a week, looking through the glass.”
The volunteering has also helped her daughter.
“My daughter has been looking for a job throughout the pandemic but there’s been nothing. She worked for a little while in the summer in a shop but that closed again. So, this gives her a reason to get out of bed in a way. She does suffer with her anxiety. This gives us half an hour a day in the car doing the deliveries to catch up and for me to ask how she’s feeling. She’s a bit shy, but I think she would do more volunteering if she had someone to mentor her a little. You do get attached to the people you see regularly, and I think she’s got as attached as much as I have.”