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Paints, paintbrushes, felt and instructions for some activities

02 Mar 2021

Top tips for providing remote support in a pandemic

When the door has been slammed shut, but you can see light coming round, how do you get in? We share our top tips for providing remote support for hard to reach beneficiaries during lockdown.

Article by Ellie Robinson Carter and Claire Francis

Top tips for providing remote support in a pandemic

In an age where so many charitable organisations are reaching out and trying to connect with beneficiaries remotely, how do you stand out from the crowd and make that valuable connection?

In the blink of an eye in early March 2020 our dementia friendly activity groups were taken away from us. The people who arguably needed social connections, routine and support the most were deemed vulnerable and isolated in their own homes and gardens. We knew we had to act quickly and creatively to carry on supporting people, but our raison d'être has always been being together as a group, outdoors. It was time to think differently, and quickly.

Involving volunteers from the start is key

To begin, we organised a weekly Zoom call with our fantastic volunteers. The first point of call was to check-in with our volunteers, to ask how they were feeling and what they felt they could offer at this strange time and, very importantly, to hear their perspectives on how best to support our beneficiaries. Immediately our volunteers were arranging call rotas between one another, and our beneficiaries have received weekly or fortnightly calls since.

Regular contact is established

We created our first newsletter, inviting our beneficiaries to read interesting seasonal highlights and to take part in nature-based activities that are manageable and possible from home. These have continued fortnightly since March: from lunar calendars in the depths of winter to making bird feeders in spring, we have offered a multitude of ways of connecting our members with nature from home. Members share updates from their lives and pictures of their pets and gardens, creating a cherished sense of community and comradery.

We sent out three activity packs with bespoke activities designed to be accessible for anyone unable to get outdoors, as well as ideas that are interesting and engaging for people who can.

Computer image of 8 people participating in an online meeting

Many organisations have approached us recently to ask how we have managed to run such an effective remote support programme, so we thought it was time we shared our top tips for providing remote support.

1. Look at what you have got not what you haven’t

Ok so we can’t meet in person outside, but most people have a telephone and a letter box and some people are willing and able to do online calls. Keeping lines of communication open is key and listening is as important as telling. We created space and time to build resources around what people are asking for. We were careful not to push technology on people.

2. Be the friend not the big organisation

No one wants to feel like a cog in a machine and no matter how large your organisation is it’s really important to make people feel valued. If you know that someone has issues with vision are you able to produce large print letters. If you know your beneficiaries don’t have digital cameras and internet access can you post out an inexpensive disposable camera so that they can share their experiences with the others?

3. Don’t overwhelm

We’re talking about the age-old mantra here, quality not quantity. We’ve all experienced it at times, the annoyance of an over keen acquaintance or that newsletter that you signed up for only to be wading through content every day. Our approach has been to issue newsletters fortnightly and to not fall into the trap of including everything and anything: we found having themes for each one helped with this. In regard to phone calls, the trick has been to ask the person we are calling every now and then if they would like more or less calls, so people know they have the option to build their own remote support package as it were!

4. Build trust

It’s worth emphasising that trust is important, if we show that we have put the effort in then people are more likely to return the gesture. This is where we see some organisations missing the mark. We believe that support has to be valuable and the conversation should be two-way. Our beneficiaries trusted that we would continue to support them because we showed up and continue to show up when the need us. We listen and act and yes that takes a bit more effort and relies on a team of amazing volunteers, but it works.

5. Make people feel included

A pack in the post is a conversation starter, it is up to the recipient as to whether they want to reply and respond to that conversation. It is important therefore to give something that feels useful and make people feel included and welcome. If you can make people feel like something is specifically designed for them, they are more likely to engage. By the same token encourage people to be resourceful in their home, so there is more chance of them continuing activities in the future. Question: do we really need to include these clay tools? Could people use some utensils from their kitchen to impress in the clay?

Which brings us on to our last and possibly most important point…

6.  Make it accessible

Don't put too much in one pack of correspondence. Think about the accessibility of what you do include. For our beneficiaries especially, too many colours, fonts and images to unpick can be confusing and detracting from the message. Deliver your support in a range of mediums, videos, phone calls, letters etc. giving the choice of what works best for individuals. Consider whether someone has the ability to get out to the post box to post their reply or would rather receive a phone call or online call. Think about literacy levels and use plain English as much as possible.

A collection of paper leaves hand painted in bright colours and patterns
Leaves from our Forest of Hope project fostering communication between our dementia-friendly groups and Constantine Primary School

These times have been nothing short of challenging but there have definitely been positives that have come from them: now we have established our remote support, we feel more equipped than ever to maintain contact with our members outside of the ‘in-person’ activity. You could say it’s a bit like regeneration – a painful process, but once you have it, it’s there to use in future too!

We must say though, nothing quite beats being outdoors together enjoying nature and each other’s company, and we look forward to when that is possible – hopefully soon.