Learning Disabilities Befriending Project
A story by Interest Link Borders
We provided Short Breaks for 70 adults with learning disabilities and 115 family carers in the Scottish Borders through volunteer befriending.
Members and volunteers enjoyed friendships, and carers had time for themselves, knowing those they care for were enjoying themselves safely.
What Learning Disabilities Befriending Project did
Face-to-face delivery was not possible for most of the grant period due to lockdown, so we continued to refine our distance service using Zoom, social media, telephone, pen-pals, newsletters and home-delivered activities.
For much of the time, no other learning disabilities activities or respite services were operating so we focused on high frequency of contact which would provide reassurance and maintain a feeling of connection.
We replicated the fortnightly pre-pandemic schedule (and many of the activities) of the face to face groups. We also added new drop-in and special interest groups so everyone had a session at least once a week. We provided devices and connections where needed and continued our telephone contact, penpal links and hard copy newsletters to ensure no-one got left behind.
We were only able to register two new members but we provided a service to several existing members not formally in 1:1 links or befriending groups. This meant we reached our target of 70 members supported. Of these, around 40 participated in Zoom meetings by the end of the project and all had a variety of other contact depending on their communication needs.
Carers were closely involved in the distance service, participating in Zoom and social media. Rather than reducing their respite, this provided vital social contact in lockdown. We also ran a carer-only group.
After developing risk assessment procedures, 12 1:1 links met face-to-face in Oct-Nov 2020 and again from June 2021. By the end of September 2021, 20 of the 25 1:1 links had met. 10 of the 13 befriending Groups stated meeting face-to-face for largely outdoor activities in August & September 2021.
We produced a number of reports and films during lockdown, which can be seen on our website.
What Interest Link Borders has learned
The pandemic forced us to develop a distance service rapidly and opened our eyes to the long-term potential of non face-to-face contact. We had always focused purely on face-to-face contact because of the difficulties of people with learning disabilities communicating over the phone. However with so many households now having smartphones and being used to social media and Zoom it is possible to have safe, reliable and effective virtual contact.
We also learnt the strength of the community we had built over previous years: friendships and trust between staff, members, parents and volunteers meant everyone involved greatly valued the connections and were determined not to lose them.
We developed a range of distance befriending materials, policies & procedures and infection risk assessment tools.
How Interest Link Borders has benefitted from the funding
The grant meant we could afford specialist tutors and sessional workers and strengthened funding applications to other grant makers who didn’t already know us. As staff we were forced to develop our skills at a rapid pace, particularly in IT: we are now all experts with Zoom and WhatsApp and with co-ordinating delivery of activity materials with online sessions. We also developed expertise in procuring and deploying tablets and data connections and supporting families in their use. We have grown in reputation as an organisation: we were the only activities and respite service for members and carers during most of the year and so are now seen as a much more crucial partner by statutory and other third sector services.
115 carers of adults with learning disabilities and 70 adults with learning disabilities will be happier/have greater mental wellbeing because of the project.
100% of members and 52% of carers said their mental wellbeing had improved. "My son and I have enjoyed being part of the group and feeling valued and cared for. The online activities have enhanced the benefits of Interest Link for us and we appreciate the bond that the group has." “If Katherine is happy it makes me happy: i know that she is enjoying herself and being well looked after.” “I know he's happy when He's out so I'm happy.” “it brings me joy and very important to me that he has this. If he didn't have this I'd feel sorry, sad and guilty for him.”
Rachel is 32, has a learning disability and lives with her mum – she is close to her sisters and family. She is a happy and bright young woman. She has been with us for about 9 years and she is always enthusiastic to try all our sessions - she has attended cooking, drama, craft and is currently doing animation where she has made short films using the stop start method of which she is rightly proud. Rachel also joined us on Zoom social events during the restrictions of the pandemic. Rachel’s mum Carole says “As a parent, my main thing is that the groups are a vital link for Rachel –she is a different person when she comes away (from the groups) - she comes away totally satisfied and proud of herself which is a lovely thing to see. It’s important for her to see her friends and there is no other opportunity. She enjoys all the activities and feels she wants to do everything, she changes each term and this speaks volumes and is lovely. It makes me happy to see her like this and gives me a bit of a break too. It might seem corny but it is so positive for Rachel and me.”
115 carers of adults with learning disabilities will have had more opportunities to see friends, spend time with spouses and the siblings of those they care for and pursue other interests.
Only 11% said they were able to have more of a life outside their caring role. This was because of lockdown: outcomes data was collected in early June 2021, before restrictions had been lifted enough to allow much face-to-face services. However there was some good feedback: "We stopped having carers come in and interest link provided a welcome break for my daughter and myself." "It has been great having all these group activities. So good keeping everyone in touch and still able to interact with everyone." "When he is with his befriender we have a chance to go out and about, or go shopping that we wouldn't normally do." "Always great to receive messages during and after lockdown. Looked forward to seeing them! Certainly kept us all busy and entertained"
Elliot is 29 and has a learning disability. He lives with his mother in a remote Village and his only social activity was through a day centre, which closed at the start of lockdown and has not reopened. Elliot had a 1-1 link when he was in his early 20`s and we always hoped that he could be linked again with someone that he could share time and socialize with. Just at the end of Lockdown we found Jasmine, who knew Elliot from many years before when she worked at his day centre to work with Elliot at his Day Service Provision and lives in the same village. Jasmine and Elliot came up with a Wish List of ideas: Swimming was something Elliot had really missed, and their first outing to the local Pool in Hawick was a great success followed by a well-earned lunch. Number 2 on their Wish List is to go Christmas Shopping to Carlisle, and plans to meet up with old friends from Day Services are also on the cards. Elliot has felt less isolated and gained more confidence as he looks forward to more social opportunities. He has found ways in which he can be independent with support away from family members, and the impact it has had on Elliot`s mental health is noticeable. Alison was elated that he was going to be linked with someone new, and now has time to herself in the knowledge that Elliot is out and about enjoying himself with Jasmine. With the time available and more of a spring in her step, she has started meeting up with friends in the village again, which she hasn’t done for some time.
115 carers of adults with learning disabilities and their families will be more resilient and better able to cope with and sustain their caring role because of the project.
81% of carers said they were better able to sustain their caring role "It has definitely helped me sustain me as a carer" "We feel it's someone else he knows for when we are not around in the future. That's reassuring to us." "It's helped [me sustain my role] in a huge way" "Nicola’s relationship with Joss has given her somebody else to talk things through which at times has helped us."
Finlay is 27yrs old, has profound and multiple learning disabilities and uses an electric wheelchair. He is non-verbal but able to use a number of signs and can show his feelings about things. He lives with his parents in an isolated rural area and is completely dependent on them for all his personal care and social needs. Finlay has been linked with Lizi for some years ago and this friendship is still going strong. Lizi was, and is the only friend who visits him. They usually meet together every two weeks and they do all sorts of activities: go for walks, shopping, grow plants, bake cakes and visit museums & galleries. Finlay usually attends a day centre five days a week, but this has not been available since March 2020 with the advent of Covid 19, which greatly increased the pressure on his parents. Lizi immediately changed to video calling on WhatsApp, short calls 2/3 times a week at convenient times when Mum could help Finlay manage the phone. Finlay said “I've felt sad and alone. Lizi has Whatsapp'd me: it's been great.” Mum has said she doesn’t know what Finlay would do without Lizi as she is so important to him. They were able to meet up from Sept-Nov 2020 and go for walks in a lovely country park and its café, taking care to observe infection controls. This resumed in May 2021 and has been able to continue inside, and they are getting back to doing most of the things they did before. They meet weekly now as Finlay’s day centre has still not reopened. Finlay says “I like Lizi. I like going places and doing things together.” Over such a long time period Lizi has come to know the extended family very well and her positive nature, warmth, reliability and genuine friendship with Finlay has been very supportive to the family members as a whole. Mum said ‘Lizi is a lifeline just now, I’d be devastated without it. We’re so lucky to have a friend like Lizi. I can relax because he's happy and well looked after. I get time to do what I enjoy - go for a walk, do housework and go round to the shops if I like. I love that bit of space to sit and people watch if I want. It helps me keep going’ Lizi talks about how ‘humbled and pleased’ she feels to be Finlay’s friend and being with him gives her an increased sense of worth. I am so glad we can start to get back to baking, gardening or crafting or visiting new places. During lockdown we were not hugging or indeed laughing very much, which was brutal and heart-breaking.
Additional project outcome
70 adults with learning disabilities will be more confident and better at communicating because of the project. 95% had more confidence and 85% had better social skills, particularly in distance communication
MacAulay is 25 and has a learning disability. He lives with his Mum and sister and has always struggled to attend organised groups due to his anxiety and lack of confidence. After leaving school he had no educational or work opportunities, but he has been linked with his volunteer Roger for the last 5 years, and their friendship has gone from strength to strength. Before Lockdown the norm was excursions to historical landmarks, and railway sites in particular: many visits included walks and picnics to find hidden tunnels and old parts of the Borders Railway which lay dormant and dilapidated. MacAulay takes a lead in planning and organising trips and independently researching hillwalking venues. As the Pandemic hit in March 2020 they both decided that their relationship was far too important to let slip and made a plan to interview people connected with “The Borders Railway Project” and its history over Zoom. Roger helped MacAulay with the questions and together they completed 8 interviews. MacAulay felt good, his confidence soared and he started to believe in himself and his abilities as a journalist. MacAulay and Roger were invited to speak about their Lockdown experiences on their local Radio Station and spent 40 minutes on live Radio. MacAulay was so proud of himself, particularly as his friends and family were listening. MacAulay`s family were very grateful to Roger and Interest Link for supporting MacAulay to achieve something that he never thought would be possible. If it hadn’t been for Lockdown, this would probably never have happened. The Pandemic had forced MacAulay to think about different ways to stay connected, motivated and less isolated. With support he was able to challenge himself, be more responsible, reliable, organised and more proficient with digital technology. Graham Ford, the Radio Presenter for the show added some comments: “They both spoke about an exciting and interesting historical railway project. MacAulay demonstrated a great level of gained knowledge from the experience. It was fascinating to hear how his interest in trains had developed to him learning about a World War II camp within the Scottish Borders. The friendship that has developed between MacAulay and Roger is evidence that MacAulay has grown into a man with a new found confidence and a responsible attitude and respect for other people, well done to MacAulay”.