'Fear, loneliness and suicidal thoughts: how lockdown has made life worse for Leeds' older people

The coronavirus pandemic will leave a lasting and life-threatening impact on the lives of older people in Leeds, charity volunteers have warned.

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 6:00 am
The coronavirus pandemic will leave a lasting and life-threatening impact on the lives of older people in Leeds, charity volunteers have warned. PA photo.

Volunteers from Age UK Leeds have been busy providing a vital lifeline to elderly residents in the city as they were forced to shield during the Covid-19 outbreak.

For many, the Check and Chat phone service, which is provided solely by people giving up their free time, has been the only human contact these people have had in weeks.

Jacqui Lawson, volunteer and hub coordinator for Age UK Leeds, said that not only have pre-existing issues been magnified but she has had to help deal with serious concerns such as agoraphobia and even suicide prevention.

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Rita Dawson, 64, from South Milford, is one of the volunteers for Age UK Leeds' Click and Call initiative that has helped people during the coronavirus lockdown.

Jacqui, 59, from Oakwood, said: “I was amazed how many people are feeling isolated even before lockdown.

“I'm finding that this has gone beyond just the checking and chatting service.

“What started as a mild intervention to hear a friendly voice has now become quite an in-depth connection where I'm following up with doctors.

“The longer lockdown is going on. The more issues are springing up."

Janice Marshall, 66, from Leeds, has helped lots of people simply by taking the time to talk to them through Age UK Leeds Click and Call service.

She added: “People are afraid to go to the hospital or the doctors in case they catch coronavirus. They're neglecting themselves because they are terrified.

“One woman I speak to is so scared and doesn't want to burden the hospitals that she refuses to go for her chemotherapy treatment. She doesn't feel safe.”

It is not just the physical problems that are becoming an issue, people’s mental health is also a serious concern for Jacqui.

She added: “I called one man and he said: ‘I'm so glad you rang this morning because last night I decided that would be the last time I go to bed.’

Age UK volunteers are helping make a difference during the pandemic. Photo: Adobestock

“He had seriously considered ending his own life and the only thing that stopped him was our scheduled phone call.

“He said to me: ‘I have not been out for so long and what is the point? When I do go out, my life is just about going to my club and I see one man, my friend, I get the papers on the way and sometimes I go and get some supper. It is not much of a life anyway, but that's the life I have. Now I don’t even have that.’

“We chatted and I distracted him and we had a real laugh. In the end, he said that I’d cheered him up.

“That phone call gave him enough hope to plan some adventures for a future when the lockdown is over.”

A key and frequent issue that Jacqui and other volunteers have noticed has been people’s increasingly intense fear to leave their homes, which Jacqui says is having a serious physiological impact.

She said: “People have been afraid to go out and this is becoming more and more apparent.

“The people who would generally go out quite happily won't even go to the end of their drive. They're so scared.

“One lady I spoke to had lost both her husband and her son to Covid-19.

“She was in such a state of grief and fear when I spoke to her that she refused to even go in her garden because she thought the virus was airborne.

“She had been locked in her home because her anxiety had become so strong it was inconceivable to her to ever go outside again.”

Thankfully Jacqui, along with other Age UK Leeds volunteers, were able to help the woman to overcome her fear with a small steps approach.

After finding out that her late husband used to love growing tomatoes, Jacqui drove to her house and dropped off some tomatoes she had grown from seed.

Jacqui said: “I told her: ‘I have a little challenge for you, I need somebody to look after my tomatoes. Would you do it? Because you're very able and you can nurture them in the greenhouse.’

“She did it and she was so thankful that she even made me a facemask to show her appreciation. Since then she's managed to walk to her gate, to the end of the street and now she is even doing her own supermarket shopping.

“I'm really pleased and I think that that is a good example of how this check and chat service has benefited somebody who could potentially have a situation that could have got out of hand.”

It is the time and small acts of kindness that makes a difference to elderly people, the Age UK Leeds volunteers said.

And it's not just the recipients who benefit - the callers do too.

Volunteer Rita Dawson, 64, from South Milford, started volunteering with the Check and Chat initiative during the lockdown and speaks to eleven people.

The grandmother of two said: "Inevitably we talk about the pandemic, what we are missing doing, what we are looking forward to at the end, but the conversations go far beyond this and sadly two people lost close family members during lockdown so we revisit memories.

"I think the people I call appreciate the contact. Sometimes you can hear their voices brighten when they realise who’s calling. One lovely lady always ends with ‘keep calling, won’t you?’ and another gentleman says ‘you can call me anytime, it is so good to hear a human voice’.

"Being able to call people during the pandemic has helped me enormously.

"My husband is a key worker and I am on my own for twelve hours each day so the human contact works both ways, it has been a real gift, and a silver lining, especially during the bleak early weeks.

"I have had cooking advice, heard of foreign places I didn’t know as people reminisce about past holidays, and been privileged to hear some lovely family stories.”

Janice Marshall, 66, from Leeds, said: "Before the pandemic, I was doing walking for health with Age UK Leeds so calling elderly and isolated people seemed the most natural thing to do as I could not do my other volunteering work.

"The people I speak to seem very grateful for my calls. They are just as interested in my well being as I am theirs and they make me laugh as well.

"I'm currently caught up in Spain due to the situation but one lady has offered to make me a nice cup of tea when I get home.

"I get a great deal of job satisfaction from my work as a volunteer with Age UK Leeds and I love what I do. The charity makes you feel you are appreciated."

Jacqui hopes that the community spirit shown during the coronavirus pandemic will continue and that people will begin to understand the severity of the loneliness and isolation among older people.

Jacqui said: “This has highlighted an area of need within the community that will never go away, you know, even if there is a cure for coronavirus.

“Many of the staff are working beyond the hours and it's not because we're great people, it's because we see a need.

“Some people have told me they don’t even know if their neighbours know they exist.

“These people have been through so much hardship and fought for us and now they are in their twilight years, we aren’t looking after them.

“We need to take this seriously because the longer this is going on, the more issues are springing up.”

Age UK Leeds looks after the older people across the city and has been working hard to help isolated people during the coronavirus pandemic.

They have launched a fundraising appeal and if you would like to support them please visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/AgeUKLeeds.