Shirley and Margaret

Life is better together

Action for Elders volunteer, Shirley, fought social isolation and doubt to become an inspiration for older people in the community.

After living in the same area of Swansea for years, Shirley, now 85, decided to realise her dream of moving to a park home overlooking the sea in a new area of the city. Not long after her move, Shirley found herself wondering whether she’d made the right decision.

“I was recovering from cancer and felt awful. I was isolated, really. It sounds silly, but I felt homesick for my old home and kept driving over there to do my shopping.”

The turning point

A turning point came from Shirley after she spent two days in bed.

“I knew it wasn’t right and had a bit of a word with myself. I’ve always been a positive person but I was slipping into a rut and couldn’t get myself out of it.”

That same week, Shirley was in her local GP surgery when she met Alex Martin, a representative for Action for Elders, which facilitates weekly health and wellbeing groups for older people. Through a project funded by Dunhill Medical Trust, ‘Get the Bay Active!’, Action for Elders was running regular sessions in GP surgeries within the Bay Health area of the city, talking to older people about their health and wellbeing and raising awareness of local activities on offer.

“It was like meeting my guardian angel. Alex told me about the Action for Elders groups, and a light went on. I knew it was exactly what I needed,” says Shirley.

The next week, Shirley attended her first Action for Elders group meeting and was hooked. “Everyone was so welcoming and immediately we just bonded. I found people like me, with similar interests, and we laughed so much.”

Shirley has made more than just acquaintances – she now has a set of strong friendships and a supportive network which she can rely on. She’s even planning a holiday with some of the other group members.

More good news

Alex, group facilitator from Action for Elders spotted Shirley’s potential to inspire people and recruited her as a volunteer. As well as helping new members settle into Action for Elders groups and organising talks, Shirley accompanied Alex to GP surgeries in the Bay Health Cluster Area, chatting to other older people to inspire them to become more active.

Dr Kirstie Truman is Lead GP for the Bay Health Cluster Network, which has supported the project. Dr Truman says: “We found that many older people were coming into our GP practices primarily for social reasons, not medical ones. Being able to refer to community activities like Action for Elders is so important – and patients report back that they feel better physically, mentally and socially. Having volunteers like Shirley within the GP practices makes a big difference in helping our patients join a new group – something which can be daunting for many people.”

Shirley found her attitude to ageing rubs off on other people: “Getting older is wonderful. There are so many positive things about it. I’m no longer looking at the clock – I have time to do the things I want to do. We need to see growing older as a gift, not a burden.”

Shirley continues: “It’s nice when I meet someone I’ve spoken to at the GP surgery and then I see them at the group. They look out for me and it eases them in at their first group meeting when they recognise a friendly face.”

Her advocacy for Action for Elders hasn’t stopped at the GP surgery sessions; Shirley talks about the life-changing impact of the groups wherever she goes. “I was seeing the radiologist at the hospital and telling her about the benefits I’d experienced through Action for Elders. She told me her mother would enjoy coming so I gave her my number and she got in touch – she’s now a group regular.”

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The coronavirus has not stopped the good work

With the advent of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, Shirley values the support of her group members even more and has set up a telephone support group, with another volunteer, Margaret. “We call it ‘The Telephone Tree’ – some of the members are lonely, but others are doing well as they have a partner – I call them all anyway so that we don’t forget each other whilst we’re in lockdown.”

She remains positive despite the restrictions on seeing her friends and family during this period of isolation: “I’ve had cancer so I’m shielding at the moment. We’ve got to remember we’re the lucky ones: we have comfortable homes, telephones and televisions. My brother had tuberculosis as a child and was in hospital for seven years – that was really tough. It’s hard right now, but we just need to support each other. When lockdown’s over our group is planning a big party celebrating all the birthdays we’ve missed!”

Whilst the Dunhill Medical Trust project has now ended, Action for Elders continues to support Swansea groups and develop its volunteers with the help of a partnership project with Public Health Wales, supported by the Health Foundation, called Better Together. Designed to address loneliness and isolation among older people, the project has supported the running costs for two Better Together social groups and is also developing a training programme for peer volunteers like Shirley. Action for Elders is continuing to support group members during the pandemic through regular phone calls, online videos, and help with practical tasks like shopping and collecting prescriptions.

Shirley concludes:

“Being involved with Action for Elders has turned my life around. My life now has structure and meaning and I love giving something back by being a volunteer.”

Action For Elders is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales under number 7698491 and registered as a Charity number 1145996
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