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Pandemic partnerships: Care homes and communities

Over the past year, we have read the heart-breaking and devastating stories from people isolated in care homes. Tom Owen of My Home Life England reflects on how communities have supported care homes and residents during the pandemic and offers advice for providers on how they can strengthen their community connections.

The involvement of the community in supporting quality of life for care home residents is critical. Helping people to connect to the passions, people and places that they have had, or want to develop, brings light to life.

As one resident once shared, ‘It’s great to have a conversation with someone who hasn’t seen me naked!’ Having visitors in the home can bring a new energy; it can help staff feel part of something bigger and, with the community engaged, enhance a home’s profile and reputation locally with the potential for new customers. Community engagement is also something which CQC looks for in its inspections.

Local connection

During the Covid-19 pandemic, care home doors have been closed (until recent Government guidance has allowed visiting). Despite this, care homes around the UK demonstrated that sustaining and building new connections with communities remained possible. Through our ‘Care Home Friends and Neighbours’ programme, we have been able to collect stories of how care homes and communities have connected and been heartened by the ingenuity, creativity and kindness that enhanced and maintained quality of life for people who live and work in care homes.

The community reached out to care homes in many ways. Tattoo parlours and local vets delivered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to local homes when it was in short supply in the early days of lockdown. Residents received pictures, posters and large print emails from local school children. Members of the community shared video links where children recorded messages of support. Shopkeepers donated boxes of fruit and items such as toiletries for staff, while local charities raised money for goody bags containing hand lotion, bath bombs and chocolates for residents.

Local organisations and businesses also showed their support. A supermarket donated a ‘wall of Easter eggs’ that was put up outside a care home. A wildlife centre donated chrysalises to one home, so the residents could watch butterflies emerge from pupae and an animal rescue centre ‘Zoomed’ a care home to introduce their wild animals. A library service which had already organised a regular book group in a care home started to offer the opportunity online. Similarly, churches streamed services and sent spiritual readings and reflections by email. Services were streamed from temples and other religious denominations provided spiritual support to worshippers from those faiths. A resident, formerly ordained, was even given permission to give blessings to residents in his home! And there was singing, with neighbours standing outside singing their hearts out, a local pop star performing in the care home car park and socially distanced musicians playing in gardens.

Meaningful messages

Care homes reached out to their communities, too. Residents sent positive messages to their relatives by decorating their front windows and fences with cut-out paper hearts. Others organised food boxes for local families. Many told us that they sent out more regular newsletters to relatives, while others found social media, such as Facebook, an effective way of showing what was going on. In another care home, a video of recent activities plays in the ‘visiting booth’ where relatives sit at a plastic window to speak with a loved one on the other side. At the start of lockdown, staff who formerly did not carry their personal phones on a shift, changed their practice and offered their phones so residents could speak to their relatives. Other managers rang family members on a weekly basis to stay in touch. Relatives groups were held on Zoom, so relatives could speak directly to care home staff about their loved ones and share the difficulties of not being able to visit. In one home, all residents were given a plant for their windowsill, plus a little tool, so it was possible to keep their ‘mini garden’ tidy. An administration officer started to run chair-based exercises in his home.

Last summer, ‘Geranium Joy’ encouraged people to take a plant to their local care home as a way to show their appreciation. It was taken up by a mayor in North West London who visited many homes in his patch. This spring, he started a ‘spring’ version which encourages citizens to drop pots of bulbs to local homes as well as running an ‘Easter bonnet’ competition for care homes which he will judge.  Some homes have started ‘pen pal’ schemes that put residents from two different homes in touch.

As we start to return to some sort of normality, there is even more value in connecting with the community. There may be an option for care homes to ‘reset’ their relationship with their neighbours as well as for local communities to acknowledge and thank care homes for their work during the turbulent lockdowns.  There could be a chance to explore whether these connections, created in a time of emergency, can be built upon as care home doors open. It is a great opportunity to establish trusting relationships where the care homes and local communities mutually support each other.

Time to reflect

Some care homes are working with us to reflect on this right now. They are considering if an event in the summer might be a useful starting point. They recognise there is the chance to rethink ‘relatives’ meetings’ so that these become more like ‘community’ or ‘friends’ meetings’ where neighbours, families and local community organisations join. Could identifying local influencers such as local mayors and the local press also help?

It can feel difficult to find time or energy to start new initiatives like this, but the pay-off could be significant. Certainly, some care homes are concerned that staff may wilt from long-term exhaustion and that an injection of energy from the wider community is needed to find a renewed purpose. Care homes need to feel cherished by their local communities and seen as places where the community can contribute to the quality of residents’ lives. Consider the possibility of the ‘new normal’ being a society where care homes are recognised as vibrant places where the community can reflect upon and value the vital role that it plays.

Advice for providers

Care Home Friends and Neighbours (FaNs) part of My Home Life England

Three easy steps to community engagement success:

Step 1. Say thank you.

We ask you to think about those people who already give their time, energy, money or simply bring ‘light to life’ to residents. We ask that you thank them, make a fuss of them and celebrate together what is working well and if there is anything else that could be done.

Step 2. Pinning down your possibilities.

This is about identifying potential contacts that might be of use to you and your residents. Think about what skills, qualities and interests your staff teams already have. Can these be used more effectively? Who does your team know in the local community who could support care homes?

Step 3. Getting the message out – go ahead and ask, ‘do you want to connect with us’.

Be brave! Why not pop out for the afternoon armed with some leaflets? Walk up and down your high street, pin up posters locally inviting people in for a cuppa and tell them you are a part of a national initiative called ‘Care Home Friends and Neighbours’ and you are interested in connecting with them.

Recent useful resources:

  • The Community Engagement Companion
  • Lockdown Learnings

Alive Activities in Bristol launched ‘One Good Turn’ as part of Care Home FaNs: Intergenerational Linking. Inviting participants to complete ‘one good turn’ for people in a different age group is more manageable for care homes, youth groups and families than an open-ended request to volunteer. Participants come up with their own everyday ‘act of kindness’ and may then feel more comfortable to engage in a bigger project later, such as collections for foodbanks or a befriending scheme. At Christmas, younger and older participants were asked to fill their ‘jars of joy’ with things such as seed kits, self-portraits, drawings, jokes, poems and souvenirs from outdoor walks that might make someone else smile. 179 jars were exchanged so that everyone had something to open over the festive period.

The Linking Network – Bradford

 The project aims to facilitate long-lasting links between a care home and local school and youth groups, to celebrate the stories that everyone has to share and to create opportunities for older and young people to connect. The network pairs a class, or year group, with a care home and supports the collaboration between these two groups. Children are encouraged to think about their own identity and their stories before creating cards and messages for care home residents. Care home staff work with residents of the ‘linked’ care home to create messages for the children at the linked school. Children enjoyed receiving the messages from the care home and finding out the stories of each resident.

Care Home FaNs North West London was funded by the Mercers’ Company, to work alongside managers and activity co-ordinators in 28 care homes in North West London to strengthen links with the community and promote engagement. A broker was employed. One part of the project explored engaging with local galleries and museums to access online events and to participate in reminiscence and art therapy sessions. In addition, care staff organised their own events. Organisations involved were: The Museum of London, The Royal Collection, The Museum of Brands, The British Library, Ben Uri Gallery, The Wallace Collection and the RAF Museum.

Tom Owen is Co-founder and Co Director at My Home Life. Email: Twitter: @MyHomeLifeUK  

In what ways has your care setting connected with the community during the pandemic and what has been the response? Comment below.









About Tom Owen

Tom Owen co-founded and co-directed My Home Life, an international programme (and social movement) promoting quality of life for those living, dying, visiting and working in care homes. Tom is now Director of My Home Life England, based at City, University of London. Tom has presented papers at a range of UK and international conferences and has published a number of papers in academic and trade journals.

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