Supporting older adults experiencing isolation as a result of COVID

Pensioner with a camera
We talked with Occupational Therapy lecturer Fiona Anderson and Physiotherapy Lecturer Craig Walker about a pilot befriending scheme, created in collaboration with NHS Grampian and Aberdeen City Council, that their students took part in to support older adults experiencing isolation as a result of COVID.

How have our third-year occupational therapy and physiotherapy students teamed up?

CRAIG: Six occupational therapy and five physiotherapy students volunteered as part of a pilot befriending project that was attached to their clinical placements. The befriending service was available to people over the age of 55 who experienced isolation due to ill health, bereavement, or geographical distance from families as a result of COVID.

FIONA: The students were allocated to a befriendee in pairs: one physio and one occupational therapy student. They needed to work with the befriendee, referred through NHS Grampian Community Services, to identify a goal and work towards it. Progress was fed back each week at a debrief session. Initially, it was thought that some of this could be done virtually, but a lot of people wanted face-to-face contact; students alternated between themselves using full personal protection equipment to visit.

How did this come about?

FIONA: Aberdeen City Council Health & Wellbeing Coordinator Darren Smith, NHS Grampian Physiotherapist Michelle Ord, and Occupational Therapist Janet Thompson made contact to ask if students could become involved in a befriending pilot project as volunteers. This became the collaboration opportunity for occupational therapy and physiotherapy students to use their skills

CRAIG: As a result of COVID-19, there were and still are many older adults who have been directly or indirectly affected from a physical and mental health perspective by the virus. Through the collaboration, it was identified that those affected would likely benefit from being befriended to mitigate the effects of social isolation.

Why do you personally feel this is a great thing?

CRAIG: This befriending project provided another opportunity for our students to be involved in further collaborations, but also to enhance the health and wellbeing of residents in Grampian. This makes me extremely proud to be part of the project and to continue to collaborate and foster links with our clinical and third-sector partners.

FIONA: It’s an interprofessional learning experience and an ideal opportunity for students to learn the skills they’ll need for the workplace and to be an effective member of a team. The process of working together to get to know the person, and work on something that is important and meaningful to them, is an important concept for students to learn.

What does this mean for the adults who have been virtually befriended?

FIONA: Students supported the befriendees to make connections with their community and to enhance their health and wellbeing. It also supported people to reconnect with their families using technology, to be independent with online shopping, or to signpost to other resources that were available in the community.

What do you think the students get out of this opportunity?

CRAIG: The pilot offered numerous benefits to the students that will be invaluable for when they progress through graduation and onwards through their career: enhancements within their inter-professional learning, development of their digital and communication skills, further opportunities to collaborate with different sectors and potential employers. Most importantly it allowed them to befriend vulnerable individuals who required our support and assistance during this crucial period.

FIONA: The students took part in this as part of their placement experience, and this was over a six to eight week period—giving time for students to work collaboratively and learn about their respective roles and how their professional skills complement each other. They learned about person-centred care while working with a befriendee to create goals that would provide a real benefit to the individual.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

CRAIG: It is hoped that this project will continue. It provided huge benefits to the people being befriended and the students. Some of the students have also said that they are keen to continue to volunteer, within their own time, to befriend their individuals. I think it’s admirable and highlighted the benefit that the students obtained from undertaking the pilot befriending project.

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