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Learning the lessons

Rebecca Mollart reflects on the impact of the pandemic on sheltered and retirement housing residents and staff.

How different things feel now than they did in March 2020. How has the sheltered and retirement housing sector coped? What lessons have we learned? The always resourceful and resilient sheltered and retirement housing sector coped incredibly; and there are so many lessons to be learned that we need to take stock and think very carefully what these might be, avoiding the natural inclination just to carry on with some of new approaches without properly evaluating longer term effectiveness. Our Older People’s Housing Conference with CIH Cymru in December started the ball rolling and we are currently pulling everything together in our Lessons Learned briefing available soon.

To write this, I looked back at what I had written about the impact of Covid-19 on the sector. This highlighted just how quickly and effectively providers put measures in place to maintain continuity of support to older people when it was most needed. But it also highlighted some of the longer term impacts of the pandemic on older people and the provision of their support services.

In March last year, when we thought we were facing a short-term crisis, I wrote in WHQ about the impact of reduced social contact on the loneliness and isolation of older people. Sheltered and retirement housing providers and scheme staff really stepped up and the extent to which support to residents was maintained was incredible. But as the situation continued, self-isolation as a result of physical need or understandable anxiety, as well as the curtailing of face to face social networking opportunities, exacerbated the loneliness and isolation of some older people and resulted in others who were not lonely or isolated becoming so; not forgetting the particular impact on those living with dementia, as well as carers who are often older people themselves.

To some extent and not inappropriately, with many scheme staff working wholly or partly from home emphasis early on was on keeping older people physically safe and healthy. As time went on, more attention was given to the mental health and well-being of older people and supporting them to develop or maintain social networks in different ways. One of my concerns has been how ‘virtual’ everything excludes even more older people who may not be digital aware or have access. I hope the pandemic has taught us that providers need to be proactive and take on a more facilitative role in developing digital engagement. It is of course inappropriate to assume older people cannot use modern technologies and increasing numbers of older people will be comfortable in doing so but there are still significant numbers who perhaps feel more excluded than they did pre-Covid.

In March I wrote about the impact on staff and the new challenges they (and their managers) faced by being suddenly required to work partly or wholly from home. Scheme managers are at their best when they are interacting with and supporting residents on site and no doubt this attracted them to the job. To suddenly switch to home working must have been challenging especially where home schooling was involved or other family members were also working from home. Initially, there were lots of positives – more time with family, less time and money travelling etc. But the longer the situation continued some of downsides came to light – not having a comfortable working space, challenges working amongst family, too much time on screens, more not fewer meetings etc. Plus from an organisation perspective – team development challenges, integration of new staff, virtual meeting fatigue, loss of collective creativity etc.

Many staff have now returned to schemes albeit part-time but I am regularly hear talk of staff continuing to work at least partly from home when we return to ‘normal’.  Home working suits some people but not everyone. It may not suit personal circumstances; it may not be physically comfortable; or it may just not suit everyone’s personality. Can a quality sheltered and retirement housing service really be provided with scheme staff working more from home? We need to think carefully about the impact on the sometimes unnoticed support on-site scheme managers provide to lonely and isolated older people. We need to think carefully about the longer term impact of home working on staff and how we continue to provide appropriate support.

Rather than thinking we will carry on with x, y and z because it has worked well, we need to consider carefully what worked well because of particular circumstances; the disadvantages as well as the benefits; what may have been lost as well as the gains; have any residents or staff been particularly disadvantaged; are there less obvious impacts on residents, staff and services etc. I hope sheltered and retirement housing providers will devote sufficient time and resources to a structured and measured review so lessons can be truly be learned, appropriate preparations are put place to minimise the impact of something similar in the future, and that any changes made to service delivery represent long term improvements rather than a knee jerk reaction to some very challenging times. My key lesson learned is therefore to make sure we learn the key lessons!

Rebecca Mollart is chief executive of erosh, @erosh_uk, 07803 176957


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