When living with illness, a listening ear, a caring smile or even a chat and a cup of tea with a friend, can be vital.
For those with life-limiting illnesses, and particularly those living with loneliness and social isolation, that extra support can be crucial, not just for them, but also for their carers.
One local project filling this need is Compassionate Communities, which is being delivered by the Foyle Hospice in partnership with Caw/Nelson Drive Action Group, Hillcrest Trust, Ballymagroarty & Hazelbank Community Partnership and Shantallow Community Centre.
First set up in 2015, it has been hugely successful and has enriched the lives not only of the recipients and their carers but also of the volunteers who both inspire and are inspired by those they befriend.
Compassionate Communities matches fully trained and vetted volunteers with people in the local community who have a life-limiting illness, such as dementia, and experiencing loneliness or isolation.
Compassionate Communities has been so impressive that the team were chosen to present their conference abstract ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ at the International Conference on Palliative Dementia Care in Belfast.
Deirdre Doherty, who was involved in facilitating and overseeing the project during the period July 2018 to June 2019, said it is ‘very much person-centred care’ with the hospice at ‘the heartbeat of it.’
Volunteers learn all about the man or woman they are befriending - their likes and loves - and natural, reciprocal relationships have developed.
Volunteers receive a bespoke training programme - which includes optional dementia awareness training - and ongoing support. Each month, they provide eight to 10 hours of their time by providing social interaction for the person and respite for their family and informal caregivers.
They allow local men and women to feel connected to the community by encouraging participation in activities and events they enjoy, such as shopping, music, or even just sitting down having a chat with a cup of tea and a biscuit in an environment they enjoy.
Deirdre told how volunteers, who come from many different backgrounds and have many skill sets, undertake ‘meaningful engagement’ that focuses on what the person likes to do. For example, if someone likes flowers, they may do some flower arranging or perhaps they like to reminisce about times gone by. Compassionate Communities gives them those opportunities within the home or in the ‘home’ that is their village, estate, environment, family, friends and city. The visits are meaningful and some fantastic friendships have been formed.
Ann and Rose are one such friendship. Ann explained: “I always do an activity with Rose such as knitting, reminiscence or flower arranging. When Rose looks at her knitting or flower arrangement she is quite proud of her achievements and feels valued. Even making a cup of coffee for me is important to her.”
Deirdre explained that time spent between the volunteer and their person also provides much-needed support and respite to the caregiver.
“It’s a new face coming to the door. It’s a nice interaction and support for the carer, as their social circle can also shrink, so Compassionate Communities not only supports the person but also the ‘unit’,” she added.
The scheme has received 308 referrals, trained 143 volunteers and established 125 matched relationships. At present, there are around 50 active volunteers across the city. In a single week in January 2019, 40% of the 46 home visits were to people living with dementia.
Community engagement has extended to schools, housing associations, dementia-related services and projects and to the council, which has agreed to adopt the Compassionate Cities’ Charter. Recently, workshops were delivered to sixth-year students in St Mary’s College, in order to raise awareness of the compassionate way of volunteering.
The Compassionate Communities Project focuses on how ‘together we are stronger’ and aims to enable all of us to live well within our communities to the end of our lives. Alongside the person-centred care it provides, it also raises awareness about death, dying and loss and journeys through this with volunteers and the person they have befriended. Both develop a strong, close friendship and become significant people in each other’s lives.
When that person passes away, it can bring a wide range of emotions. But, they can be comforted by the knowledge they have given, companionship, support and comfort to many individuals and helped them finish the journey of life well.
While speaking about death and loss can be difficult for many, Compassionate Communities is helping to open up that conversation within the community.
For information on Compassionate Communities and referral criteria, or if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, see www.compassionatecommunitiesnw.com