Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Sandra Coulter from Silverline Memories.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has seen us all experience unprecedented changes in our working lives; but as a charity that supports people living with Dementia the lockdown that began in March 2020 presented a significant challenge. How to continue to support and engage with the people who use our service without physically seeing them, when our whole organisation was founded on the promise to provide “places to go and things to do” for people living with Dementia? Our aim to reduce social isolation was turned on its head when we were actively encouraging isolation to stay safe from Coronavirus.
During the first two weeks we adopted a policy of making daily calls and sending encouraging postcards, anything to keep everyone’s morale up. We offered a shopping and prescription collection and delivery service, and this enabled us to provide very regular doorstep welfare checks and visits. During May we trialled telephone conferencing as a means of offering group support, but this proved expensive and frustrating, and feedback told it was the opposite of useful for the people who use our service.
As the founder and CEO of Silverline Memories, my own skill set has never leaned towards technology. I am a self-proclaimed pen and paper girl – a paper diary has never crashed on me and a pencil never needs recharging. However, faced with the prospect of months without any face-to-face contact, and hearing firsthand the impact of lockdown was having on the people that use our service, I knew I had to overcome not only my own reluctance to use technology, but also to challenge my assumptions about my services user’s ability and willingness to use it also. Before Covid I had not heard of Zoom, but a quick survey of the available technologies suggested this was the simplest. I set about creating a step-by-step guide to getting connected and joining a meeting that was clear for people with dementia to follow and sent it out along with my first invitation to an online Dementia Café. The response was the most humbling experience I have had in the seven years of leading Silverline Memories. We had an uptake of around 25% of our user base on that first group meeting; and the responses of our participants to be able to actually see one another after a two-month break was fantastic. There was real joy in that first session and we quickly moved all our pre-Covid groups onto this platform. I set about writing a three-year Strategy for Silverline Memories to take us through the Pandemic and beyond, with a Digital by Default approach that in the future will be complemented by the return to face-to-face activities, but not replaced by them. Over 2020 we became the leading organisation for digital inclusion for people with Dementia in the North East and have been approached by and advised other third sector organisations. We secured funding to be able to provide tablets to those without home computers or smart phones to ensure a lack of equipment was not a barrier to social engagement. There have been some very unexpected advantages to delivering groups via Zoom:
We have lost none of the warmth we shared before Covid. The online platform has allowed us to continue to feel we are together, with members feeling close and cosy being able to see one another on one screen. So much so that we will not reintroduce any face-to-face activities while there is any social distancing, as we feel closer online than we would in one room but socially distanced.
The online platform is more accessible to many carers who would otherwise need to find alternative care provision for their loved one to join the group. Those with poor health or poor mobility are also able to join from the comfort and security of their own homes.
People with Dementia have experienced a real sense of achievement in being able to use modern technology. As older people, and with a Dementia diagnosis, they are often not given the opportunities to experience emerging technologies. They are not a target audience for products such as these and are often simply left of out of research and development. The Pandemic created an opportunity that they would not previously have been given and they have embraced it with open arms. Despite seven years’ experience in this role, I have been astounded by their willingness to embrace video technology.
The new strategy for Silverline Memories included the development of a new website including a Members Only area, giving the people who use our service an online space they can access as and when they choose, to post messages to one another, ask advice, share information, or simply have a chat about last night’s telly. This development would not have come about had it not been for the necessity of finding ways to keep people engaged during the lockdowns we have lived through because of the Pandemic. There have been very few positives for older people and those with Dementia over the past 12 months, but the acquisition of digital skills is undoubtedly one to be recognised.