Anna Chaplaincy is very fortunate to receive funding from The Mercers' Company. Since lockdown Mercers have been hosting webinars to enable organisations they support to share learning on how to respond to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Julia Burton-Jones, our Anna Chaplaincy Church Lead, was invited to speak at a webinar (19 August 2020) about the role of volunteers under Covid-19.
She explains: 'Six other speakers talked about how their organisations were adapting in their work with volunteers. These organisations were also supporting older people.
'Grandparents Plus supports kinship carers, who take on responsibility for a grandchild when their parent is unable to look after them. They have developed a new volunteer-delivered telephone support service under lockdown called Someone Like Me, where those who are struggling can be supported by someone who is or has been a kinship carer themselves.
'The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, London, has taken its groups for people with dementia online. Young People of the Year has adapted its scheme where young people befriend care home residents in East Anglia to become a letter-writing scheme, which has attracted many new young volunteers. My Home Life reported that lockdown has brought many new offers of volunteering to care homes they are linked with.'
When it came to reporting on Anna Chaplaincy and volunteering, this is what Julia said:
I work part-time as the national Church Lead for Anna Chaplaincy, which is part of The Bible Reading Fellowship, or BRF. My other part-time role is developing Anna Chaplaincy within the Church of England in Kent, Medway and the London Boroughs of Bromley and Bexley. I am based in Kent.
In my local role I work with a team of 70 Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends, whose role is to provide spiritual care for older people. The team are volunteers, apart from one whose church employs her. Some are ordained (and wear dog collars!) but most are not. In my national role I am working alongside a network of Anna Chaplains who support older people across the UK, from as far north as Orkney and as far south as Guernsey; many are volunteers.
Today I will talk about older volunteers. The majority of Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends are active retired people. The typical profile of an Anna Chaplain is a person who has retired from a career in a caring profession such as nursing or teaching, whose continuing sense of vocation is found in this new volunteering role.
Before the pandemic they would spend at least a day a week visiting older people in their own homes or care homes, or running church-based groups and activities for older people, to help meet the spiritual needs of older people of strong, little or no faith.
For people of faith this can mean allowing them to continue to practise their faith and remain connected to their faith community, drawing hope and strength from beliefs that may have sustained them throughout their lives.
For older people who don’t have a faith, spiritual care allows them to talk about life’s big questions, to tell their stories and make sense of their lives, to have their souls nurtured. This is spiritual accompaniment, a person-centred, non-judgemental process of being alongside the person, listening and affirming their life experience. It is an immense privilege but also a demanding role that requires love and commitment.
The Centre for Ageing Better has conducted fascinating research on older volunteers and age-friendly and inclusive volunteering. The Centre for Policy on Ageing's (CPA) 2018 report spoke of the barriers to volunteering for older people in terms of things like the digital divide, inflexible offers, transport, physical access and not feeling welcome or valued. Has this changed in 2020? Older volunteers, CPA found, need flexibility and support, and to feel valued and connected.
During lockdown, Anna Chaplaincy volunteers have not been placed on furlough, far from it. Though many volunteers are themselves clinically vulnerable, they quickly adapted. Whereas before lockdown they may have had weekly contact with 20 to 30 older people in group settings, they are now maintaining contact with those individuals while they are isolated in their own homes. This entails a weekly routine of phoning, say, 20 isolated older people, speaking for varying lengths of time depending on the person’s needs, and offering to pray with the person if this is something they will value.
More recently, as lockdown has been eased, volunteers make doorstep visits to older people, taking round cards and small gifts and having a short conversation in person. They are spending time with care home residents in gardens.
In April we sent a review questionnaire to members of the Anna Chaplaincy team in Kent, Bromley and Bexley. We asked them what they most valued about being an Anna Chaplain or Anna Friend; feeling connected to a team of people in similar roles was the highest rated of the options offered. As one person said, ‘Meeting with others is really important.' In normal times we hold local quarterly local hub meetings for the team which are well attended because they provide opportunity for networking, learning and mutual support. 74% of survey respondents said that attending these meetings was either very important or essential.
Lockdown has presented an obstacle to this key supportive element of Anna Chaplaincy, making it impossible for local volunteers to meet in person. We have successfully moved the hub meetings to Zoom, with the majority joining and appreciating these sessions. It has become clear that some are not comfortable with this platform, and so we are now offering alternatives – collating an e-newsletter for each local hub and creating one to one links between team members for support. The national network has also grasped opportunities for virtual gatherings held during lockdown; these have been attended by between 50 and 100 people.
Key learning for us has been how important telephone support is for older people who are digitally excluded and how it can deepen and strengthen relationships, with older people more willing to open up on the phone than had been the case in person.
Another key lesson is that we need to recruit digital champions to work with the huge numbers of older people who have been unable to benefit from digital support and friendship during the pandemic.
And finally, Covid-19 will reshape the older volunteer force. Just as the younger workforce has been prompted to reassess life through lockdown, older volunteers are looking at their commitments and making decisions about how they want to use their time and energy in the future. Some of our ‘super’ older volunteers, whose energies were absorbed by countless roles in church and community, are taking a step back; they will not return to responsibilities they accepted reluctantly because no one else was willing. Some older volunteers have been edged out of roles because of their age, according to hospital chaplains I work with who are having to say farewell during the pandemic to volunteers who have been effective members of their teams for years, simply because they are over 70.
The imperative of understanding what older volunteers want and need from their roles remains and is an area of exploration we hope to develop at BRF through the pandemic and beyond.