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April 22, 2021

Re-opening: from chair-based exercise groups to socially distanced coffee mornings

“Our aim is to initially get as many members out at least once a week as possible.”
(Jo at Cross Gates Good Neighbours.)

Neighbourhood Networks across Leeds are busy planning for the re-opening of services between now and late summer. Uppermost in their mind is meeting the needs of older people, including some of the most vulnerable, as they plan ways to deliver services, providing the neighbourhood network warm welcome whilst still meeting Covid safety requirements.

Although Neighbourhood Networks are talking about ‘re-opening’, they have in fact continued to run services throughout the pandemic. This includes a broad range of activities like the door-to-door meals provided by NET Garforth to their luncheon club members and the most frail older people. Many, like Armley Helping Hands, continue to deliver ever popular fish & chip lunches, whilst many will be continuing with their doorstep welfare calls and befriending services alongside online activities and provision of activity packs as they start to re-introduce pre-Covid services, albeit tailored to meet the new conditions.

Meeting need

For the Neighbourhood Networks a return to regular services can’t come soon enough, for staff and volunteers as well as service users. Many people who use services can’t wait to get back into the swing of a more regular life, although as Darrell from Richmond Hill Elderly Action explained:

“It will be a gradual re-introduction as we’re already seeing members who are overtly anxious about coming back and if there is any stall in the Government road map, we’ll be able to manage it.”

Neighbourhood Networks continue to be concerned about the mental and emotional wellbeing of some of their service users. Seacroft Friends and Neighbours has been running a mental health support group for six vulnerable people and will soon start a peer support bereavement group: all permissible within current government advice on delivering support groups, which lessen the risk to health.

Physical deconditioning after a year of shielding is an issue for some older people. Neighbourhood Networks need to balance meeting the urgent needs of service users with current government advice and the roadmap. For example, Neighbourhood Networks have members who have lost their speaking voices after a year in isolation. At Bramley Elderly Action participants in a zoom book club have benefitted from the online chat and discussion as a means of exercising their voices and getting used to social interaction again. Some older people haven’t left the house and properly dressed for a year. The impact of this on confidence – both physical and emotional, and short and longer-term health and well-being – will become clearer as Neighbourhood Networks prioritise those most in need, supporting them to regain overall fitness and well-being.

Leeds Black Elders are currently running outdoor meetings to encourage members to come together for a chat and get out of the house, weather permitting. Cross Gates Good Neighbours are restarting physical activities from April, includeing their walking group; to make it Covid-safe there will be five groups of six people in each walking bubble led by a trained walk leader, with each group setting off at different times to reduce contact. Similarly with their exercise class starting up again in May, numbers are reduced and classes staggered. Before Covid up to 50 attended the weekly class, now they will be running classes for 15, with a gap between classes to carry out a sanitisation process.

Living with dementia

During the pandemic, services for people living with dementia and their carers have been much reduced. OPAL in West Leeds run a fortnightly Carers support group, predominantly attended by carers of people with dementia, with a group running simultaneously for those who are cared for. Neighbouring organisation MAECare’s Circles of Support provides one-to-one doorstep visits and walks as well having continued its Cognitive Stimulation Therapy service, with CST based activity packs aimed at carers to help them provide support. In addition they also have a weekly Sporting Memories group and a six week session Playlist for Life, both run via Zoom.

See the Leeds Dementia Friendly what’s on listing, where you can also add your own service

Timeline and challenges

Many Neighbourhood Networks are planning a staggered re-opening of services between now and September. A few organisations are re-opening from now with support groups and outdoor activities, whilst others are planning for June, basing this decision on the government road map outlining June 21st, and seeing that as the safest option.

For many Neighbourhood Networks June and July are the period they’re envisaging lunch groups and socially distanced coffee mornings to start again. Armley Helping Hands intends at that point to begin to introduce inside group activity with food, including breakfast, lunch and supper offers across the week. Similarly MHA Communities South Leeds plans to reopen lunch clubs “when there should be no restrictions for face-to-face services.”

Re-opening is not just about the services. Key to making services effective is ensuring that staff and volunteers are happy and comfortable, says Kate from Seacroft Friends and Neighbours, as well as ensuring that participants can feel confident and secure in going along. The numbers attending services are reduced due to social distancing and safety requirements, which also puts pressure on transport. Eight-seat minibuses now only cater for two or three people per journey, an additional logistical planning concern for services for people who are reliant on transport.

While Neighbourhood Networks with their own premises can choose when to re-open, many are reliant on rented venues, often from the council and local churches. The latter organisations need to go along with when landlords re-open rented spaces, as well as adhering to landlord’s risk assessments and health and safety checks, in addition to their own assessments and policies. For organisations which run services across multiple locations, like NET Garforth who run 14 lunch clubs across the villages they serve, this is a large undertaking. In addition to extra insurance costs, re-opening on any scale is a major undertaking for small charities, as most Neighbourhood Networks are.

Funding Covid-safe services and catering to smaller numbers is more expensive than running services pre-Covid. Neighbourhood Networks are reluctant to pass additional costs on to their service users and some have been successful in accessing funding to support their revised models of service delivery.

For the moment, Neighbourhood Networks are continuing to develop robust re-opening plans according to the current government timeline and national guidance. They anticipate supporting some of the most vulnerable older people to re-engage, meet old friends and make new ones in Covid-safe environments.

Ali Kaye
Third Sector Development Manager, Time to Shine