A Conversation with…

A Conversation with…Tracey Williamson, Graham Galloway, Sue Hinds, Hannah Sweeney and Dr Shirley Evans

Empowered Conversations have been organising a series of weekly webinars during lockdown, and the last one before the summer break took place on 22nd July. In a slightly different format from normal, this webinar comprised Emma Smith from Empowered Conversations chairing a panel of professionals who have been ‘Shifting support for families affected by dementia from face-to-face to virtual support’.

The panel members were:

A recording of the webinar is available here and is well worth watching for more detail, but a very brief summary of some of the key points of interest is given below.

The panel

Graham, Sue and Hannah each gave a short overview of their services in ‘normal’ circumstances and how their offer has had to adapt to cope with the current lockdown situation, before Emma posed a series of questions and topics for discussion by the wider panel.

The provision of online services – was this something you were already doing or was it solely due to lockdown?

In most cases, prior to lockdown all service provision had been delivered face-to-face, so staff were required to skill themselves up quickly, both to get online services up and running but also to be able to support clients and members to access them. Dementia Carers Count had been planning to implement an online approach in the future, so the current situation brought those plans forward very quickly, even though staff had little or no experience. A few small elements of the work Kirrie Connections Meeting Centre has done with members has been online previously, and as it is based in a rural part of Scotland the benefit of an online approach was an area of interest. In some cases lockdown has given impetus to actually put things in place. Shirley reported that seeing the experiences of other Meeting Centres gave her the confidence to initiate a purely online Meeting Centre in Herefordshire, while Tracey noted that people often have the desire and enthusiasm to try new ideas, but the urgency of the current situation has been a big motivator as services do not want people to be left unsupported.

How was the content of your online programmes decided?

A variety of approaches were used, such as Age UK Salford trying to replicate what was previously being done during face-to-face sessions as this reflects what clients were enjoying. DCC’s approach evolved over time, starting with in-house ideas and creativity but adapting their offer based on problems that people were reporting and topics emerging from their support calls with carers. For Graham, it was important to use their normal approach of asking their members and carers what they would like to see included. Rather than a single approach, they have a suite of options to support people in different ways depending on their individual needs. Input and content from carers and members have also helped their newsletters to evolve, and although there have been challenges producing hard copies the positive feedback has made it worthwhile. Shirley reported that as part of the MCSP, weekly meetings were established with Meeting Centre managers to find out what was happening and to offer support, and the learning from these meetings has been very useful for everyone in those meetings in terms of getting new ideas and seeing what has or hasn’t worked for them.

What has worked really well in terms of online provision?

One example from Emma was an online drawing class which provided ‘pure escape’ for carers as it offered them the opportunity to spend an hour focusing on their drawing rather than being overwhelmed by everything else that was going on in their lives. Overall though, the opportunities and connections provided by an online approach were felt to be real benefits. For example, people may form different connections when people are based in their own homes than in a more formal setting. Online sessions also provide the ability to reach people who might not otherwise be able to access services, such as attending courses in a fixed location, supporting carers who were isolated at home, more engagement from carers who would normally use a Meeting Centre as a form of respite, or engaging with new Meeting Centre members who wouldn’t necessarily have come through the door of a physical building. Shirley noted that in Herefordshire different options had previously been considered for engaging people with Meeting Centres who would not have come together as a physical group, but lockdown almost forced a solution on them.

What has been less successful or taken a while to get going?

A common issue were the challenges around getting people set up online from a technology perspective, especially when advice has to be given over the phone without being able to see what they are doing. However, the benefits were felt to be worth the ‘agony’ involved, so if anyone else is in the same situation, keep persevering! A lack of connectivity for some people was also an issue, so it is important to be aware of those who are not receiving online support and work out alternative approaches for them. Sue acknowledged that she had her own internal barriers and concerns that she had to overcome when moving online, but realising that things don’t have to be perfect was an important step forward for her. In fact, in many cases it’s better to ‘real’ than perfect. An important point raised by Tracey was the importance of getting feedback from people to get their views on services. Are people actually comfortable sharing insights into their homes during online sessions?

Have you received any funding to deliver this type of online support?

Different organisations had different experiences with respect to funding. Age UK Salford and DCC had not received any extra funding, so have had to reallocate existing staff and resources. However, as DCC is reliant on donations, they have not had money coming in to support them. Graham has been able to secure funding for technology, to support production of the newsletters, and to get people do deliver sessions more frequently than normal. In Herefordshire, Shirley has received funding to establish the online Meeting Centre and also for technology, noting that it sometimes feels easier to get funding for technology than services. Conversely, she noted that community fundraising has been lost during lockdown.

Has any evaluation work been done yet or been planned?

Sue indicated that they have carried out surveys with regards to their virtual offering, and were also analysing weekly data to gain insight into what services people are accessing and actually spending their time on. As part of the MCSP, data is routinely collected from Meeting Centres and this has continued in an adjusted way during lockdown, capturing information about the types of contact being made with members and carers, and wellbeing, as well as conducting focus groups and interviews with relevant parties to record experiences and opportunities.

Looking forward, what elements of your online work will you keep and what face-to-face provision will you return to?

After having positive experiences with online provision, it was good to hear that everyone was planning to keep at least some online elements in the future. Hannah said that they will be continuing with their Zoom groups for those who want to access support and activities in that way, while both Graham and Shirley have plans to use technology to enable Meeting Centre members to continue attending sessions if they are unable to attend in person, for example due to illness or location. Graham also noted that during the transition back to face-to-face activities they would only be able to work with smaller groups in person, so keeping their online work would help to keep everyone involved. Sue indicated that DCC are hoping to keep all of their online offer, but the momentum will necessarily slow down as staff focus more on the face-to-face courses.

The panel

Questions and answers

In addition to Emma’s questions for discussion, a few questions were raised by webinar attendees.

Does developing an online require more resources than face-to-face work?

There was a mixed response to this, depending on individual experiences. Graham felt that some parts were very time-consuming, such as getting people online and producing the newsletters, but di note that actually the switch to online provision was incredibly fast. From Sue’s perspective, the face-to-face courses normally delivered by DCC are very intense, so there wasn’t as much of a difference when moving online.

What about people who don’t have online access?

Everyone reported that they have been doing phone calls with people, not just online sessions, and low/no-tech options like newsletters also work well. Shirley noted that teleconferencing has been done successfully elsewhere, so that could be an option to consider, rather than just one-to-one calls.

Do you have any views on charging people for online services?

It is unclear whether organisations more broadly are charging for their online services at the moment, so it’s difficult to know how this might work. People might be willing to pay if online services are part of a blended offer alongside face-to-face services, but introducing a cost could be difficult if an online service has previously been offered free of charge.

Thanks to everyone involved in this panel discussion and for the ideas you shared.

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow and Meeting Centres on twitter @MeetingCentres

Author: Association for Dementia Studies

We are a multi-professional group of educationalists, researchers and practitioners who are expert in the field of person-centred dementia care and support. Our aim is to make a substantial contribution to building evidence-based practical ways of working with people living with dementia and their families that enables them to live well. We do this primarily through research, education and consultancy.

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