Protecting older people from rural isolation

Audrey, from Agewell makes a 'Good Morning' call from her work station.INMM4112-114ar.
Audrey, from Agewell makes a 'Good Morning' call from her work station.INMM4112-114ar.

By Gillian McDade

OLDER people in the Mid-Ulster area have an invaluable lifeline in the form of the Agewell project, which runs in Cookstown, Magherafelt and Dungannon, helping to prevent rural isolation and to safeguard their health and wellbeing.

Agewell, an umbrella organisation, grew out of the Good Morning caller scheme which was already established in the Magherafelt area, and at its helm is Project Manager Shauna McCrystal who took time out from her busy schedule to speak to the MAIL.

Research and fact finding about what was needed on the ground was initially carried out and the £1 million was granted, allowing the project to run from May 2010 to 2015.

Agewell now delivers Good Morning calls and provides a home maintenance service, and there is a community development co-ordinator to work with groups in the area.

The MAIL visited Agewell last Wednesday at the Rainey Centre in Magherafelt to see the Good Morning project in action. The volunteers work from 9am to 1pm five days a week and they make around 300 phone calls per day to older people, providing a much-needed listening ear.

“That can be anything from a five minute phonecall to an hour long phonecall,” explained Shauna. “It can be anything from ‘how are you keeping today?’ to ‘tell us about your day yesterday’ to ‘have you taken your medication?’ and ‘is there anybody coming to see you today?’ – questions that are all relevant to the person they are calling.”

Volunteers worked a total of 807 hours for the year January 2011 to December 2011.

“The majority of the people we call are over 70, but there are people in the bracket between 50 and 70 as well.

“A lot of the time you find you could be the only person they will be speaking to that day. There are a lot of people we call who don’t benefit from having a care worker or a home help, or maybe they don’t have many relatives about,” said Shauna.

“It’s all about making sure that the person is up and about, that they’re keeping well and that there are no on-going issues. If we don’t get hold of the person for a couple of days, we ring their next of kin to make sure everything is ok. We also work closely with social services and the Northern Health Trust elder care team.

“Anytime we are concerned, two of us would go out to the house to make sure everything is ok, after we clear it with the appropriate channels. It’s all about targeting the vulnerable and isolated,” she added.

Shauna is keen to stress that the area they cover is extensive.

Agewell also offers the services of a home maintenance worker which is free and non-means tested. There are two home maintenance workers, both of whom are enthusiastic about their work, visiting houses and carrying out essential work or dealing with any situation which may arise.

“They would have a chat and make sure the householder is well. The following morning, the handymen give feedback on issues they feel are necessary, from isolation to vulnerability, and they might suggest, for example, that the householder would benefit from a Good Morning Call, attending a group or having contact with a link worker,” said Shauna.

Agewell was also awarded £21,000 in criminal assets money and this went towards funding a range of security items which are fitted free of charge, providing there is a need. These include carbon monoxide detectors, key safes, dummy cameras and panic alarms.

The handymen also carry out household repairs which can be something as simple as hanging pictures, putting up a clothes line to cleaning out guttering or fixing a fence.

The staff at Agewell include Project Manager, Shauna McCrystal; Good Morning Manager, Marie Devlin; Keelin O’Neill, Community Link Worker and Ursula Scullion, Community Development Co-ordinator.

Keelin, who is a qualified social worker, works with people on a one to one basis for a six to eight week period. Agewell receives referrals from either the PSNI, councillors within their local district or social workers. Referrals can also come from a neighbour or a family member and much of the time she would deal with isolated and vulnerable people with mental or physical health difficulties.

Keelin would initially have a one to one chat, do a scoping exercise and see what activities the older person would be interested in. At the end of the six week period, Keelin would recommend a line of follow-up.

Community Development Co-ordinator Ursula Scullion’s role is to work with community groups within the three district council areas. A mapping exercise showed that Ursula has worked with 75 community groups, spread evenly over Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt.

Ursula’s work includes providing information to community groups or working alongside them to improve their health, or alternatively she would bring in an instructor to provide a six week armchair aerobics class, aromatherapy, or flower arranging.

The aim is to provide two activities per district per year, but such is the demand and interest, Agewell could provide over 20 given the uptake - and if they had the resources.

Ursula also facilitates training events which benefit community groups, with the provision of rural transport for attendees, and these issues would cover fuel poverty benefits, home safety and crime prevention.

She is also involved in inter-generational work which enables her to work with younger groups, raising awareness of the needs of older people, and similarly, she works with older people’s groups to dispel myths associated with youth.

Most importantly, Shauna has highlighted the fact that the help initiated by Agewell is getting to the right people.

Agewell has been a huge success and there is a strong desire to sustain this beyond 2015. The project has the support of the three councils and staff regularly keep councillors updated on their work.

A social event is held for the Good Morning members once a year, usually at Christmas.

Agewell is keen to hear from any older person in the Magherafelt, Cookstown, or Dungannon areas who feel they would benefit from the services offered. Contact Unit 3, The Rainey centre, 80-82 Rainey Centre, Magherafelt BT45 5AJ, tel: 028 7963 2170, email Visit the website

Shauna is also appealing for volunteers for the Good Morning project and their remit is to make the calls from 9am to 1pm each day. Again, contact the project for more information.