Reflecting back, looking forward: An organisational response to ageing well during the global pandemic crisis

The Beth Johnson Foundation (BJF) has been supporting the ageing population for over 40 years. Based on compassion and determination, its workforce prides themselves in being flexible and adaptable as they proactively respond to the needs of local and national ageing communities. We at the BJF all firmly believe that the value of someone's life simply does not diminish with age, as Andrew Colclough (Volunteer co-ordinator here at BJF) poignantly says ‘The experiences of someone who has lived a long life is a resource to be valued. Everyone, regardless of their background and their age, has the potential to make a positive contribution to our community’. This is why we endeavour to champion a ‘Future for all ages’ across all the work that we do, and continue to provide a voice for the voiceless from a strategic, policy and practice perspective.
The current global pandemic is an invisible, cruel adversary and attacks indiscriminately; it remains elusive and unpredictable; it is a powerful entity for which we currently have no definitive defence or clear cure. It has undoubtedly affected the world; dismantling communities and dividing opinions regarding best practice for human survival. The necessary, challenging sanctions of social isolation and social shielding imposed by the UK Government to minimise spread and reduce death, have been catastrophic to so many people, young and old. As the promotion of social distancing and self- isolation impacts particularly on the vulnerable in our society, this obviously includes the ageing population, where, for many, isolation and loneliness were sadly a regular, close companion even before the pandemic arrived.
With our extensive experience, the Beth Johnson Foundation is firmly committed to actively supporting our ageing population throughout the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. We strongly believe that age alone should never be used as a deciding factor in any decisions.  Direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of age is totally unacceptable under any circumstances, and longevity has to incorporate quality of life as an indicative parallel factor.  Consequently, we at BJF had to rethink how we plan our work in the future: balancing the need to adapt to the government sanctions, whilst continuing to provide that much needed support for our ageing, vulnerable, communities as best we could. Working from home has not been easy for our teams, as social communication is a reciprocal process, and we have all so missed the physical connections and interactions with our colleagues and clients. We have continued to provide all of our support but using telephone and social media; we have adapted and regularly updated our web site to alert individuals to these changes. We have continued to successfully recruit volunteers as important and valued members of our teams and we have connected with other third sector organisations in an effort to widely circulate information about our adapted services and to offer and extend our support to these organisations.
As the world prepares to recover from this onslaught, to restore elements of the life that was before the pandemic, we then began to think strategically about the future of the service, to anticipate what the world might look like as the virus began to dissipate, and, importantly, what our vulnerable, marginalised, ageing communities would need in the short, medium and longer term. 
We have developed two particular areas for immediate support to our ageing communities, for which we have submitted proposals to obtain funding to enable us to provide the relevant support across Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire:
  1. Loss and bereavement. As the numbers of recorded cases of Coronavirus continued to increase, and the number of deaths surged, the Government introduced rules directly affecting the rituals of death and dying. (i.e. no visitors were allowed at the bedside, even up to the point of death, regardless of age, funerals would only accommodate up to 10 mourners spread out at the church/ crematorium, and no social gatherings to commemorate the dead were allowed). Whilst such sanctions are seen as crucially important to minimising spread and limiting deaths to this disease, this often results in disenfranchised loss for many people, particularly marginalised, older people who already are often socially isolated and lonely. Subsequently, in direct response to this, we want to work collaboratively to establish bereavement and loss help point groups (initially using virtual support groups) to promote resilience through loss for our ageing communities, providing additional choices when dealing with such sensitive areas of support.
  2. Loneliness impacts on the health and wellbeing of the person, and in particular the person with dementia, cancer and older people who may live alone and feel socially and often physically isolated.  We plan to provide support to reduce the impact of loneliness on mental health and wellbeing by training a small army of volunteers to work alongside individuals, assess their needs and wants, and to help to reduce associated anxieties. BJF will act as a social conduit, providing the tools to support the much needed connections of older people to promote self-confidence, reduce anxiety and to ensure that this population can socially meet others, form friendships and to begin to enjoy company once again.
Here at the Beth Johnson Foundation, we believe that ageing is everybody’s business, and that by embracing the positive aspects of ageing creates a better world for everyone. We learn so much from the people we support, about the strength and resilience amidst frailty and vulnerability that constantly reminds us that value and worth does not decrease with age, but does indeed increase. As the Foundation itself begins the road to recovery, we will collectively reflect on these past months, to ensure we do not lose any of the lessons learned from this sudden and unwelcomed journey and that any positive outcomes are indeed captured and integrated into our future work and restoration as we regroup. As Professor Sue Read (interim CEO) reminds us ‘Age is but a number until you reach that number, and then it can become so important. Sadly, many negative connotations associated with ageing still persist, but the many exemplars of the creative initiatives and wonderful achievements throughout the pandemic crisis are a harsh reminder that the older generation have so much to say and so much to contribute to the world we live in. As global restoration begins, let’s continue to listen to (and learn from) the older people from Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire, as we strive to live in a world that will be significantly different in the future, where getting older is something to aspire to and to treasure ’.
Finally, we at the BJF are open to liaise with anyone who wishes to join us in our endeavour to support older people during this unprecedented time. Please contact us at the email below should you have any comments or questions about what we are doing.
Prof Ziv Amir, Chair, Board of Trustees, BJF
Prof Sue Read, (interim) CEO, BJF
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