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'Holding realities up to the light'

Updated: 20 hours ago


Chair of the July 29 webinar, Marion Shoard

Christians on Ageing wanted to explore what self-isolation is really like in the pandemic. Chaired by Marion Shoard, author of How to Handle Later Life (Amaranth Books, 2017), about a dozen of us took part in the webinar. David Jolley, the charity's ('Chair in waiting') reports:



This was an impressive gathering of exceptional people and proved to be a stimulating, informative and humbling experience.


Introductions took us around the UK – from Orkney to Wales, to Kent, parts of London, Yorkshire and elsewhere.


Marion introduced us to the subject area, reflecting that relationships are of variable importance to individuals but without them, things do not work.


The lockdown has required of us since 16 March, as a main plank in the strategy to restrict the spread of Covid-19, to severely restrict the natural networks of relationships, even within families. Simply being aged 70 or over designated you ‘clinically vulnerable’, and you should restrict contact with other people (Self-Isolation).


Older people have been found to be particularly at risk of the infection – nearly 50,000 people in the UK have died with a Covid-19 diagnosis. Eighty percent of these deaths have occurred to people in their 70s or beyond: deaths rates amongst people in their 80s have been three times the rate of people in their 70s. Deaths rates amongst people in their 90s have been nine times that of 70 year olds.


As the rates of infection and death from Covid-19 have fallen, the restrictive rules are being relaxed. People are being encouraged or required to return to work. Services and entertainment are becoming available within guidance. The pressure to return towards normality comes from social and psychological considerations but also from the economy. People, especially older and vulnerable people, are not uniformly confident that a return to activities, even within the guidance, is safe.


Marion reported on her recent visit to a beach, which was busy with younger people and children, but there were no old people. They will be reflecting that, to date, there is no vaccine, no treatment, and other counties report rising rates of infection when they have relaxed discipline. Here the government and NHS publish advice and guidance, but not everyone complies – masks are recommended but not always worn in public places where people are in close proximity.


Many churches remain closed. Funerals remain restricted in attendance and practice.

Marion finished the introduction by asking:

  • Who needs help?

  • What can churches do?

  • What can be accomplished using the telephone or digital technology?

The response was a vigorous, committed, highly informative and moving discussion:


  • We heard of people feeling like lepers when walking away from home – identifiably over 70 – but otherwise fit and independent – busy helping others.

  • Mixed messages from doctors and government have not helped - ‘stay at home and save the NHS’, ‘keep active’. Messages have been clearer and certainly better respected in Scotland: ‘The Nicola Factor’.

  • Fearful at first, some would cross the road and avoid eye contact. But with persistence, we find that maintaining eye contact is possible, important and makes people feel better. Conversations can occur even across roadways and within the social distancing guidelines.

  • It is important to think of techniques which might work: leaving a gift of a flower or plant, making use of gardens and gardening. Meetings in gardens are blossoming. We heard of Knickerbocker Glory afternoons, with ice-cream provided by a local company which could not otherwise dispose of all its production.

  • Helping people get about often requires a lift by car. This can be potentially hazardous – but can be managed with sensible precautions.

  • Much joy when the local post office opened. Only one customers allowed in at a time – but a return to contact, information and things you need.

Debbie – staying in Sussex – went to a church that had reopened for services at 10.15 am on Sundays – was disciplined – with social distancing and masks, no singing, but all words on a screen. 'So good to have the service, including Communion, for the first time in months.'


She gave us the story of a taxi driver who took a job in a care home because she had no trade in lockdown. She found the loneliness being inflicted on the residents because of lockdown, precautionary isolation just too hard to bear. All kept in their rooms day after day with no outside contact – many unable to understand why and feeling abandoned and punished. She resigned her post within six weeks.


Debbie shared pointers to activities by Anna Chaplaincy which can be helpful in supporting people at home:

  • A review of what is known about loneliness.

  • The use of masks with windows to help people with problems of hearing or understanding without the visual cues of lips and facial expressions.

More information about the growing network of 147 Anna Chaplains, and those in equivalent roles, and the dozens of volunteer Anna Friends who work with them… which can be found at www.annachaplaincy.org.uk. The movement has grown exponentially since 2014 because of the expanding need in this field of ministry (especially as a result of Covid-19 more recently) and the greater appreciation of the importance of the spirituality of ageing.


The ‘A Carer’s Guide series of five booklets for care assistants. She has blogged about them here and here. They cost £2.50 each, or £10 for a pack of five – either for one of each title, or for a pack of five of each single title.


They are flying off the shelves as churches buy them in bulk to give to their local care home managers to distribute to care staff as a way of thanking key workers. They have been road-tested by people with experience of care home working so that they hit the right note and contain genuinely useful information. They are a way of equipping staff to give emotional and spiritual support while visiting restrictions are in place for church pastoral teams and Anna Chaplains.

Subscribe to the blog for regular updates at annachaplaincy.org.uk/blog. Topics covered include Cream Teas in a Bag, top tips for making the most of phone calls in lockdown, how to conduct church services over the phone, guidelines for safe doorstep pop rounds, making gifts of goodie bags for care staff to show appreciation for their efforts during the pandemic, reaching out to the non-digital community, music sessions for people living with dementia and their carers, Messy Vintage online services and for those without internet access by making craft packs available and delivering them, how to make Psalm 23 bracelets in care home settings and for the housebound etc. etc.


Amanda kindly supplied a number of links which address the issue of loneliness:

Focus on special groups who need extra consideration. Anxiety and depression have risen amongst many people during this time. People who are known to be vulnerable to emotional disorders may need seeking out and be encouraged to have help of practical and emotional forms. Our previous session paid particular attention to people who have been recently bereaved – all the discussion from that day is relevant here. There have been many deaths, many have found themselves gripped by grief and the return of griefs from earlier losses.


In the absence of major psychiatric disorder, people have become at risk of agoraphobia – fearful about going out – as they have not been practising going out. People who have no one within easy reach. People with multiple impairments – more vulnerable to the virus and other illnesses and more challenged and challenging in efforts to continue in contact and meaningful communication.


Contact and communication can be encouraged with treats: flowers, cupcakes, cream teas, special events – garden celebrations of VE Day and similar.


We heard of a man with dementia who lives in a sheltered housing block. He simply cannot understand or remember the new rule which requires him to stay in his flat. He comes out and wanders the corridors, knocking on doors seeking the comfort of friendship and a few words.


We heard of a Local Preacher – not allowed to hold services, he has taken to visiting vulnerable members of the congregation and holding conversations from the end of the garden path. This is greatly appreciated.


Lucia told us about running A Holiday at Home in lockdown/coming out of lockdown.


We have chosen as our theme: Kings and Queens in the Bible. So we are looking at Saul (from hero to zero), Esther and David or Solomon


We are going to prepare bags which we are going to drop at each person’s home on 3 Thursdays in August. These bags will contain quizzes, an easy recipe, a craft activity, the talk and Bible passage in written form as well as on a CD. The CD will also include a joke, greetings a 20 questions ‘Who am I?’ guessing which Bible person we are looking at as well as a piece of music connected to the king or queen. There will also be pens, brushes, paints a card with a scripture verse to colour, a poem. One week the bag will contain a cream tea and one week a mug with the church logo on. There may also be a small posy of flowers and instructions on doing an easy scientific experiment.


We are hoping to recruit some volunteers to help us pack the bags, deliver the bags, contribute poems.


On each of the Thursdays each person who has received a bag will get a phone call from one of the volunteers based in the church building, asking how they are getting on with the activities, the quizzes, if they have any questions or feedback. The recipient will be asked if they want to feed anything back or contribute anything.


One of the volunteers has suggested these packs be called ‘Summer Surprise’ packs


We turned to look at the strengths and weaknesses of modes of communication with isolated older people within the constraints of lockdown.

  • The idea of sharing services via CDs was strongly supported

  • Packs delivered by post are tried and tested

  • Local radio will sometimes be helpful – with services, phone-in, request programmes. Radio 4 programmes are appreciated but may be too early in the day for some.

It is felt that the main TV channels have not been as helpful as they might be. We had heard that Sunday morning services, provided in response to lockdown have been discontinued, even though much appreciated, as soon as it became possible for churches to reopen – in practice many churches are still closed and worrying about making safe arrangements.


More advanced technology is used by some. Many churches have made services available live and as recordings via the internet. We heard of a project on Orkney which has purchased and reconditioned Tablets and taught people how to use them


We were introduced to KOMP – an innovative, simplified version of computer communication designed to be usable by people who find the technology daunting.


And we turned to recognising how valuable the telephone is as a mode of communication: long established and trusted. Almost everyone possessing the equipment and knowing how to use it. Podcasts can be played down it. But mostly it finds power and favour as a form of one-to-one conversation – without the visual cues, but with time and clarity to share worries, ideas, hopes and fears in more depth.


People who might otherwise be ‘at the periphery’ of church can find themselves with the undivided attention of the minister or lay worker. Prayers can be shared, as well as readings and reflections suggested by the individual.


Perhaps the most powerful story of the session told of an attempt to communicate with an individual with dementia by telephone. Deprived of all the other cues, the telephone visitor’s voice was not recognised and the lady with advanced dementia was getting more and more distressed and disturbed. What to do? What to say? Then came a flash of inspiration on the part of the caller. She asked if the lady would like to say the 'The Lord’s Prayer '– they did so together and, noticeably, the lady with advanced dementia... received peace. Those with her at the other end of the line could be heard asking: ‘What is she saying to her?’

What indeed.


Early in the day Shirley had spoken about her frustrations with mainstream NHS and charity agencies in the way they approach the needs of patients and carers – hence her move to recommend ‘Contented Dementia’ and her own work http://understandingdementia.co.uk

But not to confuse people with too much detail and technicality, she will say simply:

‘What is important is the way you are with people’.

Amen


A simply wonderful gathering and sharing of thoughts and experiences, conducted with a caring and respectful spirit, helping us to hold the realities up to the light – and to encourage determination in the face of such a fearful threat.'

David Jolley, 30 July 30 2020



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