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Photograph: Time Out London/Eleanor Sutton

Lockdown Legend: the volunteer who started a scheme to donate iPads to care homes

The initiative aims to keep elderly residents connected to their families

By
Isabelle Aron
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When the country went into lockdown in March, Eleanor Sutton had been volunteering for Helpforce, a charity that works with the NHS. Along with three other volunteers, Sutton came up with a new initiative called Connect Force. The scheme aimed to keep older generations connected to their relatives by donating iPads to care homes so that elderly residents could virtually ‘see’ their families when visits were no longer allowed. The project has been up and running since April and is primarily focused on care homes in London, but it’s already started expanding across the country.

We came together at the beginning of lockdown with the aim of reconnecting the country’s older generation with their loved ones, during the crisis and beyond. The scheme involves donating electronic tablets to the most in-need care homes across the UK, so [residents] can do video calls with their family and friends. 

As well as the residents, it’s been really hard for their loved ones not to be able to see them. Staff were having to use their personal phones to facilitate conversations with families. We’ve heard massive amounts of evidence of calls from families mounting up because they’re worried. There’s been a strain on care home staff who’ve had to increase their hours.

The four of us who run Connect Force all work in different sectors. None of us have massive amounts of experience working in the charity sector but we’ve been able to bring together our skills to cover all the bases. I think that’s why we’ve been able to get it off the ground. That and lots of WhatsApping and shared Google Drive documents. And a lot of Zooming.

I’m an actor but the whole industry has been completely decimated. The job I was due to start earlier this month wasn’t able to go ahead, so I found myself with a lot of unexpected time on my hands. I wanted to channel my energy into something positive.

Donating electronic tablets to care homes feels like a simple idea, but then you realise how much goes into it. There’s the fundraising side, but also in terms of logistics. We want to keep it as personal as possible so the four of us make as many deliveries as we can. We’ve been using Zipcars and borrowing friends’ cars. My mum and dad helped us do a big delivery in Oldham. That’s been one of the nice things about it – so many friends and family have donated their time. It’s brought people together and the energy behind it has been so positive.

So far we’ve donated iPads to care homes in nine boroughs across London and a few areas in the north west – we’re starting to expand. We have donated tablets to homes which house more than 4,000 residents.

It requires a large amount of research to ascertain which home would benefit most from a donation. We focus on a borough at a time and call every care home in that borough. We build a detailed profile on each home – their capacity, their existing technological facilities and things like that. It’s a bit overwhelming but that’s kind of what it’s about, being able to connect with people and hear their stories. It’s simultaneously the most tragic but also heartwarming part of the job.

I think getting tablets into the care homes has been a real lifeline. I think we didn’t realise how important connection was until it was taken away. Obviously video calling can never fully replace face-to-face visitation but it’s the next best thing.

It’s nice to be there at every stage of the process. You can build a relationship with the homes – we keep in touch with the places we’ve donated to, sending pictures and having phone calls. We’re keen to make sure it’s not like a drop-off-and-disappear type thing.

There was a home in Lambeth where they video-called us on one of the devices that we’d donated, so we could join in with a birthday party which was being done over Zoom. It was a joint party of a 93-year-old and a 96-year-old and they were on Zoom with their respective families and we all sang a massive rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. That was a real highlight. We’ve also got a pending invitation to a post-pandemic party at one of the care homes, so we’re looking forward to that.

Aside from being able to video-call and connect with loved ones, there have been some unexpected extra benefits. In a care home in Lewisham, the residents have rediscovered ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ – it’s been the main topic of conversation throughout the care home: what’s going to happen to Hyacinth Bucket next week?

In another home, there’s a guy who’s a keen amateur photographer who’s been using the tablet to take photos in the garden. A caregiver was telling me about a resident who used to be a train driver and that they’ve downloaded an app for him so that he can watch train journeys from the perspective of the driver. He’s living with dementia and it’s a real reminiscence for him. The benefits have been wonderful.

A lot of the caregivers have talked to us about how the mental health of their residents has taken a hit because of not being able to be visited by their families. There are also the residents who are living with dementia and maybe don’t understand why their children aren’t coming to visit.

It’s a really positive scheme but it’s borne out of something really tragic. Isolation of the elderly generation is a problem that existed before the pandemic and will continue to exist afterward. That’s why we’re hoping we can keep up the momentum and expand the scheme.

We’ve launched a strand of the initiative called Connect the Generations to link primary schools with their local care home. We’re working with Highgate school and they’re raising money for their local care home to receive tablets. We want to facilitate a long-term relationship between the home and the primary school too – it’s the idea of connection and community and intergenerational relationships.

It’s been wonderful to develop an initiative that’s had such a positive impact on so many people. One lady said to us: ‘You can’t imagine how much it means to me to see my elderly mother over a video call, having not seen her for 12 weeks.’ The benefits have been so much more complex and wide-reaching than we ever thought they would be.

It’s so important that in times like this we come together as communities. It’s a shame that it’s taken an international crisis to bring that to life. It’s shown the power of connection – in terms of the video calling, but also reaching out to people and asking for help. We’ve had so much volunteer support. The impact of the last few months has been devastating, but there have been some real glimmers of hope, in terms of community feeling and people looking out for each other. I really hope that can continue.

Read more from this series:

The fitness fanatic hosting aerobics classes on his doorstep.

The Londoner who set up a community scheme to make scrubs for NHS workers.

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