Volunteers step up to support seniors during the pandemic

Customer stories - 2 Nov 2020

How can you support and stay connected with older Australians during the coronavirus pandemic? Meet the Queensland volunteers who have been thinking outside the box.

During this unprecedented time, older people need our support more than ever. The protective measures of physical distancing and isolating seniors, who are already at heightened risk of loneliness and anxiety, can take its toll on their mental health.

It is estimated that around 1 in 5 older Australians were socially isolated before the pandemic.

Added to this, The Australian Loneliness Report revealed that 1 in 4 Australians feel lonely three or more days a week, with over half of the population (55%) saying they feel that they lack companionship sometimes.

“Social isolation was an issue before COVID-19, but the physical and mental health impacts have received a lot of exposure recently,” said Julie Norquay, General Manager Community Services & Volunteering at St John.

“COVID-19 has compacted issues associated with social isolation, for a group that’s already significantly at risk of loneliness and poor mental health. These issues are especially exacerbated when the person has no network of family or friends to support them.

“We’ve had customers calling in crying.”

Thinking outside the box

Toowoomba resident Brodie Taylor has been a volunteer with St John Qld for over a year as part of the Community Visitors Scheme (CVS), a federally funded initiative that supports volunteer visits to older people in the community to provide friendship and companionship.

Before COVID-19 restrictions started, one morning a week he would visit the local aged care facility near his home to catch up with his CVS friend.

He said a strong friendship has formed between them.

“We would chat and laugh together, tell stories and jokes, tell each other their plans for the week. It’s a very rewarding experience,” Brodie said.

However, because senior people are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, aged care facilities have gone into lockdown. Brodie, like many volunteers, could not physically visit his friend.

“One of the hardest things about this COVID-19 lockdown is not being able to visit my visitee. I didn’t realise I would miss it as much as I do,” he said.

Brodie decided to go back to a traditional form of communication – letter writing.

“With COVID-19 I have been writing him letters until I am able to visit him again. I will be thankful when this lockdown ceases and I can visit him again, it is the highlight of my week,” he said.

Close up of man smiling at camera and holding postcards under his chin

Brodie isn’t the only one thinking outside the box – many volunteers have switched to phone and virtual friendships to help older people feel less isolated.

Helping people stay connected

Julie said the organisation was impressed at how their volunteers have been creative about how to provide social support to older people.

“Although St John Qld volunteer visitors currently can’t physically visit their CVS friends due to COVID-19 restrictions, many are still finding ways to stay connected,” she said.

St John will continue to offer phone and virtual friendships post COVID-19, and there’s hope that the Federal and State Governments will continue to invest in these types of services as part of a ‘new normal.’

For example, a National COVID Older Persons Information Line was set up in April to help older Australians get the critical information as well as providing an accessible one-stop source for personal support, questions and up-to-date guidelines.

“We want the community to know that there is help available. Nobody should feel alone.” Julie said.

Interested in volunteering? Find out more about the St John Qld Community Visitors Scheme on 1300 785 646 or email enquiries@stjohnqld.com.au.