The West Lothian service for people over 60 offered essential support to many, navigating the barriers in place as result of COVID-19.

Cyrenians OPAL aims to maintain or increase independence and well-being across West Lothian for those age 60+. The service is delivered by a team of dedicated, trained volunteers who offer encouragement, companionship and support to help engage in social, leisure and community activities. Provision is person-centred and varied, depending on needs and interests. A typical example of one-to-one support may be a referral for someone recently discharged from hospital following a fall and looking to build up confidence walking again. In addition, we offer social, activity and learning groups.

When the pandemic hit, older people were immediately flagged as “high risk” and many fell into the shielding category due to existing health conditions. Those who had initially been referred to OPAL with feelings of loneliness and isolation were especially anxious at the prospect of weeks or months in lockdown. We quickly reassured people that we would continue to offer support in whatever way we could and began working on a plan to adapt our services, which at that point were primarily face-to-face.

Our home visits were replaced with telephone calls and once restrictions relaxed and the weather got warmer, we made doorstep or garden visits. We mailed out weekly puzzle packs to boost cognitive stimulation. The packs also contained wellness materials like seated exercises and other information on local suppliers and services.

Digital support through Connecting Scotland allowed us to connect people with families and friends and with our online groups where they could see their OPAL group friends again. In addition, we developed our Blether Buddies and Mail Mates schemes where we match like-minded people for telephone chats or to write to one another. Since then we have linked with another organisation through Befriending Networks for a further pen-pals initiative, promoting long lasting, self-sustainable relationships.

Inclusion is important to us, so we wanted to ensure that we offered choices if participation was restricted in some way. Despite this, we quickly became aware that those living with advancing dementia were struggling and required some additional support. Music, singing and dancing had been popular at our physical groups and we were aware of the benefits of music in Dementia care (this link will take you away from our website).We introduced telephone singalongs where clients could share their favourite songs, hymns or just listen to a much-loved piece of music. These were incredible moments and had such an impact that they ultimately led to the launch of our Musical Memories weekly Zoom group.

Whilst feedback tells us that there is nothing quite like face-to-face contact, we have also learned that remote services can be really beneficial, particularly for those who are housebound or have limited interactions with the outside world.

Client feedback has supported these adaptions and continues to feed into our development. An example of this was the launch of our first evening group to get people through the long, dark winter evenings. This was well received over Autumn and Winter but by Spring, as restrictions eased, numbers decreased.

We now offer a more seasonal service provision with walking groups planned for spring/summer and evening groups for autumn/winter as well as a full Winter programme. There is also an emphasis on digital learning during the more isolated months, particularly in areas that can be cut off from friends and family during severe weather. We are much more tuned into this now and will continue to plan and consult our service users about what works best for them.

In March last year, we completely diversified our service to meet the needs of our clients and allow us to continue supporting our volunteers. Fifteen months on, we have retained our full staff team and increased our registered volunteers by 40%. We continue to take new referrals and offer various options for older people to engage in group activities or one-to-one support.

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