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Making connections with your community

My Home Life England details the impact of COVID-19 on community engagement and how we can all still come together despite social distancing.

We all know that building relationships with external organisations is important. But how are you supposed to do this during coronavirus, with the additional risk of infection?

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus the central role that the care sector plays in the health of the nation.

For too long, care homes have been easy to ignore as places removed from communities, places that simply house the old and dying. This was evidenced just earlier this year, with fatalities in care homes not initially mentioned as part of the official COVID-19 death toll statistics. But finally, this changed.

Recent media focus has served to highlight that people who live and work in care homes are part of our society. Care homes support our relatives and friends; the staff and residents are people with names and histories, people who have things to share and lives to lead, people we love. People like ‘us’.

Engaging with local communities will help to strengthen and sustain this view of care homes. Of course, it is not the appropriate time to ask people to come in and visit. However, it is a brilliant time to reach out to communities – if and when managers have the energy and capacity – as care homes may for once be pushing at an open door.

Reaching out

Over the past month or so, staff at My Home Life England (MHLE) have been contacting the network of care home managers who have graduated from the My Home Life leadership programme. Through phone calls, MHLE has been showing its recognition and appreciation for the incredible work they do.

We’ve been listening, offering practical support and capturing (with their permission) the ways in which care homes are adapting their daily routines during this crisis to maintain some sort of normality for residents, relatives and staff. Our new YouTube channel, Conversations with Care Homes showcases many of these discussions. The short videos offer ideas and tips as well as sources of support for managers and frontline staff, such as free counselling. Topics discussed include ways for managers to practice self-care, ‘quick wins’ to improve resident and staff morale, techniques to reassure relatives and keep them connected, and offers of free emotional support to frontline workers, for example from the Southern Association for Psychotherapy and Counselling .

One of the most common things that care homes managers say has brought them joy, is the heart-warming response many have received from their neighbours and local communities.

It seems that as a result of this terrible crisis, a perhaps unlikely but positive thing has happened: with the support of the British media, communities are waking up to the needs of older people living in care homes and are recognising the small and simple ways in which they can make a difference to other people’s lives.
For example, we’ve heard stories of podiatrists, tattoo artists, beauticians and veterinary surgeries all donating critical and much-needed personal protective equipment to local care homes. Managers shared that, whilst donations are of course hugely appreciated and welcomed, it is the thought and recognition that count even more.

Across the country, many care homes have been approached by their local places of worship and we’ve heard that some churches are now live streaming services directly to care homes. One church even went the extra mile by asking the children of their congregation to write cards to residents, while a different church created rainbow drawings with their youth, which were later displayed in the care home’s windows.

It’s obvious that some members of our communities have the confidence and ideas to connect well with care homes. But there will be others – individuals, clubs, groups and businesses – that are not clear about what is possible. They might be looking for ways to help and not quite know how. It’s worth getting in touch with any ideas you might have, as many organisations would welcome suggestions.

Over the past three years, the Care Home Friends and Neighbours programme has highlighted the importance of care homes opening their doors to communities and has provided resources and ideas to support this action.

The COVID-19 crisis has demanded that we consider and re-shape our offer. Finding practical and achievable ways for care homes to connect with local communities is vital, not only during this crisis but also for the future. One idea, for example, saw a call put out via social media before Easter to encourage local people to think about isolated residents and to consider giving chocolate eggs, flowers and other gifts. Tesco in both Essex and in Bristol donated Easter eggs, while another branch delivered spare food.

This activity was also promoted via the COVID-19 Mutual Aid network , which sees groups of local people across the country, who want to help, coming together to organise support during the crisis. The initiative reached over 2,000 people on Facebook and achieved around another 2,000 impressions on Twitter. The power of social media shouldn’t be underestimated and if you want to connect with your community remotely, this is one way of seeing what’s out there.

Our free resources

My Home Life England has a host of free resources that can be shared and used across the care home sector.

Care Home FaNs has been developing an Intergenerational Linking Project (a joint venture between My Home Life England and The Linking Network), which has recently launched an activity pack of resources for young people aged 5-14 to help them remotely connect with people living in care homes. The aim is to encourage meaningful intergenerational relationships between young and older people, at a time when face-to-face intergenerational activities aren’t possible.

To encourage other members of the public to connect with their local care home, and to support them to understand how they can help, Care Home FaNs has also developed a set of posters to be placed in windows or supermarkets. These suggest easy things the public can do right now to engage with and support care homes, such as sending in letters or dropping off a magazine. The posters can be easily modified to add the care home’s name and contact details, and to personalise the list of suggested actions. They are available to download from the resources section of the Care Home Friends and Neighbours website .

We know that care homes will take up this opportunity as and when it feels right. In the meantime, we are exploring how this ‘call to action’ could be promoted via local press, councillors and MPs as well as social media.

Finding helpful solutions

Since the COVID-19 crisis hit, care home managers have identified the valuable role that technology such as Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp plays in connecting residents to their loved ones. Having devices opens up opportunities for residents to connect out; for example, chatting with a local friend, virtually visiting groups and clubs or going on virtual tours of local places. These are all effective ways of reducing feelings of isolation and increasing connections.

However, some care homes lack sufficient laptops and tablets. Providers who need more devices to enable residents to engage in these virtual calls could again reach out to a local shop or organisation who might be willing to support by donating tablets or funds.

Thinking of the future

It seems that communities are now finally understanding and appreciating how important care homes are for our families, friends and communities. Providers need to embrace this moment and use it to form lasting connections with local people and businesses, that they can continue to develop when social contact is allowed once again.

What’s more, when the crisis has passed, there will be a golden opportunity for care homes to open their doors and welcome the community in. Look out for this, and make sure you take the chance.

Jen Lindfield is Senior Development Officer and Lead for Social Action, and Pamela Holmes is Lead for Care Home Friends and Neighbours, North West London at My Home Life England. Email: Twitter: @myhomelifeuk

Are you finding your local community more open to engagement? How are you working together with others? Share your insights and leave feedback on this feature by leaving a comment on this page.

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