Grant Gibson and Cate Pemble (The Sustaining Resilient Communities Research Team, University of Stirling)
Why Community Organisations?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis the likes of which most of us have never known. As a result, a lot has changed over the last 10 months, from January’s early reports of an unusual strain of pneumonia in Wuhan, to the first case of the newly named COVID-19 being reported in the UK in March, its global spread and the various lockdowns and continuing restrictions experienced by many countries as they they to manage their pandemics.
While a great deal of attention have been paid to the impact of COVID-19 on health and to a lesser extent on social care services, one sector that has seen much less attention has been that of volunteer based community organisations, which provide an increasing amount of support and care to older people living in the community. The staff and volunteers in these organisations play an important part of supporting older people, including helping them to live in the community. But COVID-19 has meant that these vital services have been and continue to face huge challenges to the services they provide.
Our project; “Sustaining Resilience and Wellbeing Among Frontline Community-Based Care and Support Workers to Vulnerable People during a Time of Crisis” was funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government in May 2020 as one of its COVID-19 Rapid Response projects. Our project wants to answer the following questions:
- What is it really like for staff and volunteers supporting vulnerable older people in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How are staff and volunteers personally coping during the pandemic?
- What do staff and volunteers need in order to help them keep well as they work through this crisis?
This project was designed by five academics at the University of Stirling, Scotland with a great deal of experience in researching with older people in Scotland, particularly those people with dementia. Each of us had direct experience of talking to older people about their support network – we had heard first-hand about the importance of being able to keep in contact with their friends, to be active in their community, and to access the services they need. Then we watched in real time as COVID-19 made many of these things impossible.
Knowing that research was already underway across Scotland to understand the effects of COVID-19 on health services, we turned our attention to how the pandemic might be affecting this “hidden network” of care and support, which is vital to large numbers of older and vulnerable people living in the community, but which was vulnerable to collapse as a result of the pandemic.
We wanted to know what had happened when lockdown came in – how (and if!) services had continued – and what had happened in Scotland’s communities as a result. Importantly, we wanted to know its effects on the many members of staff and volunteers working in these organisations; how they have had to change to deliver their activities over the course of the pandemic, how everyone involved was looking after themselves in the long term, and what they needed if they were to continue to be able to care and support their clients as the pandemic evolved.
How the Project Worked.
We knew from the outset that the first step in this project had to be talking to people “on the ground”. This is actually pretty unusual for academic research – usually there would be a months-long process of searching the existing literature for insight about how people might feel, and what they might be facing before we ever reached the interview stage.
But there was no literature to read for a global pandemic where folks could be put into lockdown almost overnight, but still “meet” their friend for a tea and a catch-up the next day over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom. There was no roadmap for how people might feel as they navigated a pandemic with one eye on the 24-hour news cycle.
So, we had to speak to people. Very quickly.
That meant remote interviews: talking to people either online, or over the telephone. It meant keeping our questions broad so that participants could tell us about their experience as experts in what it was like to work directly with older people in Scotland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days of the projct starting we were interviewing people about their experiences of dealing with COVID and its various effects on their activities. But we knew it wouldn’t be enough to hear about these experiences. We knew that many individuals and organisations were in essence ‘flying blind’; they didn’t know what they could and couldn’t do to help people, or whether the changes they tried to introduce would work.
Recognising that much of the learning about what would constitute best practice in responding to the pandemic would only emerge as people made changes, we wanted to give people the chance to get something helpful out of the research as well. So, we have set up two “Action Learning Sets”, which brought people working in community organisations together to work through with each other some of the new challenges they faced as a result of COVID-19 in practical ways which recognised that no one had the answer. Our Action Learning Set groups were (are!) phenomenal. People were able to be honest about the challenges they were facing, and generous with their time, their support, and their suggestions to one another. Through asking each other supportive questions and giving themselves time and space to both develop strategies to deal with problems they faced, and report back about what did and didn’t work, we were able to support people to make successful changes to their organisations, thereby giving more appropriate care.
What Can You Expect from Us?
Anyone who has ever worked with, or talked to, an academic researcher knows that the research progress can be really slow. It takes a long time to interview people, to gather and analyse their experiences, to write reports and prepare articles, to publish and hope that the right article finds its way into the right hands at a time where it might be useful.
That kind of speed doesn’t cut it with COVID-19. We’ve heard so much already about how difficult it has been for older people living in Scotland to adapt to life under the threat of the virus, and so much more about how people across Scotland have stepped up to support them.
Having spent the summer conducting interviews, and autumn working with our Action Learning Sets, we are now in the process of analysing the data. To support staff and community organisations to continue to provide care as the pandemic evolves over the upcoming winter, we have developed a website which contains information about the project. Our website is:
The website also contains a blog which covers a range of topics from recruiting and looking after staff and volunteers during a pandemic, to how communities responded to a sudden loss of services. Consistently, our focus will be on practical insight and real-life advice based on how others have tried to look after themselves during the pandemic. If we have data on it, it’ll be here.
Each post will focus on one problem – it’ll tell you how we approached it as a research team (including what worked and what didn’t!), and then it’ll tell you what we’ve heard from people across Scotland who have taken part in the study, and some resources giving suggestions or advice derived from the experiences of the people and organisations we’ve talked to during our project. Finally, we are also producing resources that staff and organisations can use to them support them and their staff’s wellbeing and resilience during this very difficult time. The resources are based on learning developed over the course of the project, and new resources from our research data are being regularly published.
We hope it’ll be useful. It’ll definitely be interesting!