Age Exchange in Blackheath Village
Age Exchange closed its doors in March as the pandemic took hold

A vital charity in Blackheath reinvented itself in a matter of days as it fought to keep up with the strange new world that Covid-19 plunged it into.

Age Exchange was due to celebrate its 35th year supporting the community before the country locked-down. The Blackheath charity is a national body that supports dementia sufferers using creative arts to improve their wellbeing.

And as well as helping people across the country, Age Exchange also has a cafe and community hub, complete with library, at its central hub in Blackheath Village.

Usually, its groups meet up across south London – and even in Manchester – and follow creative programmes developed by local artists and volunteers. But on March 17, Age Exchange closed its doors and was faced with difficult decisions on how it would support its vulnerable clients, and their carers, from behind closed doors.

It did not take long for solutions to be found – and within four days of lockdown, a whole new programme had been designed and delivered to over 100 households.

“Normally, when I say let’s do things differently, there are months of discussions – it’s amazing what you can do when you really have to,” explained Rebecca Packwood, the charity’s chief executive.

“We shut on 17 March, which had huge impact for us. We have a cafe, and space hire, we’ll lose a lot of money each month and that was a big worry for us. But, we sat down as a team, and we said that the biggest worry was the people with dementia and their carers who will have to shield – they’ll have none of the respite care they usually get.

“And importantly, people with dementia need routine.”

Age Exchange box
Age Exchange’s boxes contain art activities

It did not take long for the team to come up with a way to keep their users entertained and stimulated in their own homes – developing a befriending phone scheme and specially-designed “creative boxes” that are hand-made and delivered door to door.

Rebecca said: “On 17 March we redesigned the whole service. On the 19th they started befriending and on the 20th we were delivering. We’ve learnt how flexible we can be – it is like being on a constant episode of The Apprentice, there’s always a new task.”

Usually 138 volunteers, such as local artists, keep the charity ticking over. They allow dementia sufferers to mix and get creative, while their carers get a well-earned break and a chance to socialise with others in similar positions.

With the shielding protocol in place, Age Exchange had to think outside – or rather inside – the box to keep its vital services going. Each creative box features arts, crafts and quizzes, and is put together and delivered by a team of volunteers.

The boxes have 14 activities designed to be spread over two weeks. After that, they get a DVD that has specially-recorded seated exercises or lessons.

Rebecca went on: “Volunteers help pack and build the boxes, they’ve been in today and created another load. They are delivered by volunteers. They get a box and then two weeks later a DVD, for seated movement and another was singing for the lungs. We use teachers they are already used to seeing – that really helps as well.”

With the boxes already proving a hit, the charity is planning to keep the scheme going long beyond the pandemic.

Rebecca said: “We are planning to do it for another six months, and it is a service we will continue beyond the pandemic. In the first box, there was an activity where one artist had drawn a branch and bird, and it asked you to colour the bird in and it included some reminiscence questions about birds.

“The next bit was just the branch, and asked you to draw your own bird. We got feedback from people who said they then sat on the patio and watched the birds. Catching the imagination of people with dementia can be difficult, so this gives them ideas.”

Age Exchange clients
Age Exchange’s service users have enjoyed receiving the boxes

On top of the boxes, volunteers are checking in with befriending phone calls and health assessments.

The chief executive said: “We came up with the idea for a virtual daycare service, They get a newsletter every two weeks with information about the other people in their groups, celebrating birthdays and with poems, etc. We have two groups we are trialling running by Zoom, and the boxes we are now selling online so if you have a relative you think it’ll be useful for you can order one.

“It’s the sort of service that really suit people. It’s sold over a hundred so far that will hopefully cover some of the losses so far.”

People with dementia are especially vulnerable during this lockdown, with routine vital for their wellbeing. Some regular users struggle to understand why they can’t leave their houses, or why their families aren’t visiting, which inevitably upsets both the user and the volunteers.

The chief executive said: “Everything we do is about trying to combat loneliness. For the people in the team of six who makes calls, that can be difficult for them, you get worried about them. One of the people we call got scammed in the first week, her bank accounts were shut down so we have to solve problems like that.

“It is difficult for you. When people are doing the clap on Thursdays, I think the group that got forgotten are the home carers. It can be really isolating. We have people who can’t remember that they can’t go out, so they are having to repeat that all the time. We have one woman who thinks that her family don’t want to see her.

“You can imagine how distressing it can be for the people looking after them. These people do it out of a combination of love and duty. What we get back from people is an absolute delight.”

Age Exchange is hosting a virtual balloon race to raise money – see the Ecoracing website for more details. To donate directly, visit the Age Exchange website.

TOM BULL is a freelance journalist and former local democracy reporter in SE London. We have been able to commission him to write for us because of the generosity of people who fund 853 with monthly memberships. Thank you to all who have helped.

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