Swindon support group for lonely older people is boosted by coronavirus fund grant

By Barrie Hudson - 28 January 2021


Volunteers who help and support lonely and isolated pensioners have been helped to continue their work thanks to a grant.

  • An MHA Communities volunteer making a befriending call

    An MHA Communities volunteer making a befriending call

MHA Communities in Swindon has been awarded £9,600 from Wiltshire Community Foundation’s Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund towards running costs after it lost vital income during the pandemic.

The money for the group was donated to the fund from the Oakfield Development in Swindon, a new neighbourhood of 239 sustainable homes at Walcot.

The community foundation’s fund has already raised £1.2 million and distributed more than £1 million through more than 200 grants to groups across the county.

MHA Swindon co-ordinator Julie Dowie said the eight-year-old group, which is part of a national network, had 35 volunteers who do shopping, make befriending calls and devise monthly activity packs for 123 people in the town and surrounding villages.

Many of the group’s members live alone and a number also struggle with mobility issues, so the cheery visits bring much-needed human contact, as well as practical help.

“It’s all about supporting their wellbeing and their independence,” she said. “We have a lot of regular activities where the members can meet up, a friendship group at St Andrews in Walcot, a fish and chip group at Epworth Court in Old Town and a lunch club at the Methodist Church.

"But none of them have been running since last March.”

Instead, volunteers have been fetching shopping and making regular befriending phone calls to elderly people who see few people while they are shielding at home.

Ms Dowie said the pandemic and  the successive lockdowns had heightened members’ fears about going out and returning to normality.

“People have been lonely and the anxiety has increased a hell of a lot, so it is going to be quite tough when we go back into action and try to encourage them out of their homes and come back to the groups.”

The monthly activity packs, which feature stories, puzzles and craft, are hugely popular with the members.

“I had a lovely message from a lady who received her activity pack and said she was overwhelmed with joy at getting it,” said Ms Dowie. “She was so pleased to get so many things in it and said it would keep her occupied for ages. It’s heartwarming when you hear that.”

The befriending calls made by volunteers to those who are the most isolated and anxious are a valuable part of the group’s work.

“One of our members is a volunteer and she helps with the befriending phone calls,” said Ms Dowie. “I’m looking to set up a telephone tree, so the members get a call from another member and then they ring someone else.”

She has been constantly looking for other ways to keep in touch to the older people she and her volunteers support to and help remind them they are not alone.

“We have been having a virtual fish and chip club,” she said. “I have had five volunteers helping me deliver it, we take over the York Road chippie and I’m standing outside distributing it all to the volunteers so we can they can deliver them to members in half an hour, which is what the food hygiene rules say.”

She said the community foundation funding has been a relief after a year of being unable to raise money.

“Normally we’d be out trying to organise fundraising events like bazaars but we are not able to do any of that, so we haven’t had any income coming in at all, and it has been tough,” she said.

“The grant will help pay towards the activity packs, a bit of my time and travel costs for the volunteers.

"When I was told we had the funding I was absolutely buzzing because it will help us for 12 months. I couldn’t believe it, it helps us because we are trying to meet the needs of the people. It is their scheme really and we are here for them.”

Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said: “This group works so hard to make sure its members who are lonely and frightened do not feel forgotten and we are so pleased to be able to support it.

“Groups like MHA Communities have seen their ability to fundraise badly affected over the last year and that could threaten their future. That’s why our fund is just as important now as it was when we launched it last March.”

To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.

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