Majella Stewart and her colleagues at the Well Fair Project at Dove House, regularly deal with people living in Derry who have not made it beyond their front doors in years.
The project was set up in 2013 in response to research carried out locally which suggested that there were a lot of isolated people in the Triax area (Bogside, Brandywell, Creggan and Fountain).
These are people who do not engage and are cut off from society. As a result they often suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems as well as financial distress when they had not claimed their proper benefit entitlement.
Kieran, from Creggan, is one of the people whose life has been changed thanks to the staff at the project.
In a three tiered approach, staff deliver education sessions, benefit advice and advocacy and lend a listening ear and befriending service.
For Kieran - who suffers from a range of health problems and is registed disabled - having that support has made a huge difference to his every day existence.
“I wouldn’t get through a lot of it without the girls down there,” said Kieran. He’s referring to the filling out forms and his regular visits from the staff at the Well Fair Project.
“They come in and do some work. You look forward to the visits. You look forward to having somebody to chat to. It can get very lonely,” added Kieran.
He said staff at the project had helped him with a number of issues.
“Even if I ring them and it’s something that isn’t even their job, they’ll always try to help,” he aid. “I’d be lost without them. They’re just very good people.”
Kieran is one of the people who staff are now regularly in contact with but there are many in the city who remain isolated and cut off from the world around them.
“There are people who are living totally reclusive lives,” noted Well Fair Information Officer, Majella.
“People may not think this kind of thing happens in their city, or their street, but it does. We want to make contact with and support people who do not leave their homes.”
Kathleen Bradley, the Well Fair Project co-ordinator said the aim of the project is specific.
“This service aims to catch people who fall through other safety nets. There are plenty of other groups who work with older people, but we have to acknowledge that not everyone is falling into that safety net. We’re here to engage with them.”
The befriending service offered as part of the Well Fair Project is unique. The volunteers are all aged 60 and over.
“We wanted that because people often respond better to people from their own peer group,” said Majella. “We are the only project who do that and we know that older people respond better to that kind of approach.”
Another key element of the project is the delivery of education programmes.
“Falls Prevention is a big one,” continued Majella. “In most cases, when older people are admitted to hospital it is because of a fall. That in itself has a big impact, it leaves people feeling even more vulnerable when they go home again. Their mental health is affected just as much as their physical health.”
Among the other education areas focused on are home safety and bogus callers.
Integral to the Well Fair Project is Colleen Doherty, Advice and Adovcacy Officer.
Colleen advises those people who are approached by the project on their financial entitlements. In the first three months of 2016, the project was responsible for claiming £122,570 for clients who had not claimed the benefits they were entitled too.
Financial barriers are also a major contributory factor to older people becoming isolated, claimed Kathleen.
“Those on lower incomes are instantly more restricted in the way they live their lives.”
Colleen points to the fact that people from an older generation may not feel they should be applying for benefits.
“Many of these people have worked their entire lives. They’ve never applied for anything and they don’t know where to start so they just don’t.”
Kathleen criticises the bureacracy which surrounds the application process. This fact alone, she said, was adding to the isolation of many people locally.
“There is one form which is over 40 pages long. Accessibility is a major issue. And when someone isn’t able to access that basic entitlement - be it their blue badge, bus pass or pension credit - that immediately restricts them.”
A combination of financial pressure, poor physical and mental health are often the catalysts which lead to individuals becoming totally isolated and as a result, more vulnerable.
While the Well Fair Project has made a positive difference to the lives of many people living locally, Majella believes there are more people who continue to live their lives completely cut off from the world around them.
While the majority of referrals come via Social Services, she insisted that anyone in the local community who feels there may be someone who is vulnerable and potentially isolated should contact the project.
She’s also appealing for new volunteers for the befriending service.
“We need people in the 60 plus age bracket and those who do, will find it very worthwhile. If anyone feels they might be interested they can contact us here at Dove House.”
For further information about the Well Fair Project, contact Majella Stewart at Dove House on 028 71 269327.