Connect Group – community based volunteering in NHS Fife
Lisa Taylor works on the Volunteering in NHS Scotland Programme hosted by Community Engagement, which is a directorate of Healthcare Improvement Scotland.
In February 2020, Lisa visited the Connect Group in Kirkcaldy. The initial plan was to film the group in April, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic these plans were cancelled. The piece was changed to a written format, and Lisa conducted the interviews via telephone.
I was fortunate to be invited to visit a volunteer-led community support group in February 2020, to scope out plans for a case study. The group is for people with a life-limiting illness, who have been discharged from palliative care day service. This can often mean that their disease is inactive for a time, meaning they can return home. The diagnosis is often still terminal, but patients can live independently in the community during this time.
Teri Perry, Volunteer Manager at the Victoria Hospice in Kirkcaldy, saw a gap for community-based peer support and arts-based therapy for patients with life-limiting illness in the local area, and the Connect Group was started in January 2020. Teri often gets feedback from patients, who have been discharged from the hospice day service, stating they have feelings of “not fitting in” to society. Many find the transition away from the day hospice challenging.
Teri successfully recruited NHS Fife volunteers who had experience in palliative care settings, to support the project and it is led at present by three volunteers. The Connect Group helps tackle the loneliness and isolation that is often experienced by people with life-limiting illness, and gives service users an opportunity to build friendships with others in similar situations.
On my visit to the group, I found a joyful and upbeat atmosphere with lots of laughter. The local church provides the venue at a 75% reduction in cost, and also provides a discounted lunch for attendees in the church café. Members of the group can also purchase nutritious and reasonably priced take away meals from the church.
The group is supported by Amy McNeil, a local artist based in Kirkcaldy. Amy leads art sessions, which form an important part of the service funded through the Fife Health Board Endowment Fund. This is an opportunity for patients to engage and focus on new arts-based skills in a social setting.
Amy explained that "learning new skills in a group environment, can help to boost confidence and self-esteem." She went on to tell me, "members of the group have discovered that they have great skills as artists, and have made some really wonderful pieces of art work including paintings, sewing, jewellery making and creating felt animals." Amy expressed that she gets a lot out of the group personally and values the relationships she has built within the group.
The group members can also opt to have their hair done when they come to the group. A mobile hairdresser, Aileen Wilson, attends the group and gives a 50% discount on haircuts and blow-dries. I could see how much having their hair done, lifted the spirits of the group members. They were a little lighter on their feet when they came back across the room from being pampered, and the group gave each other lots of lovely feedback about how great they looked.
I spoke with Mary Elliot on the phone recently, to get her thoughts on the Connect Group. Mary is one of the volunteers who lead the group, and has been an NHS volunteer in a variety of capacities for 11 years. She previously had an NHS career as a midwife. I asked her what impact she thinks the group has on the members and she told me, "It's called the Connect Group and it really has done what it set out to do. It has connected people in a really strong way, which really helps them cope with their situations." She went onto say, "Some of them are just so brave, and I come away feeling very humbled. You can be concerned with trivial things in life and it just makes you realise how lucky you are. We can even have a right good laugh, and the atmosphere is always very positive." Mary told me that as a volunteer she feels like she gets as much out of the group as the members.
I met group member, Shirley Forbes, on my visit in February and she told me how much she enjoyed the Connect Group. I later learned that Shirley sought guidance from Amy, the group art worker and purchased the necessary materials to enable her to pursue silk painting at home. The art sessions had enabled her to learn and enjoy a new skill in the final months of her life. Shirley sadly passed away on 16 June 2020, and her family expressed how important the group had been to her in the last year of her life. I was sent a photo of one of Shirley’s silk cards. I was struck by how beautiful and detailed it was, and what a wonderful talent Shirley had for painting.
When talking to Amy, she had mentioned that artwork is a little piece of a person that is left behind when they depart the earth. Having something that a loved one put so much time and care into can be a treasured physical reminder of them.
The group is on-hold due to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Teri is looking at options to continue some parts of the group as lockdown continues to ease. Teri checks in with the group members and volunteers, and members of the group continue to talk on the telephone. Technology for some members of the group is a challenge, so it isn’t as simple as setting up a Zoom call. There is great interest in from group members and Amy around delivery of art boxes to the homes of the group members, and it is hoped this can become a reality in the coming months.
The Connect Group has created many friendships, happy memories and wonderful pieces of art. Being connected to others is what makes us human, and I learned much about lifelong learning. Creating a safe and welcoming community based setting for people with life-limiting illness to learn new skills, whilst they are often at their most vulnerable and emotional, is vital to palliative care services. These groups continue to be rare out with acute settings, and this is something both Teri and Amy spoke about passionately. It is hoped that the Connect Group model can be re-created in other areas of Fife and in other areas of Scotland in the future.
Personal growth and development should be nurtured and encouraged throughout a person’s life, right until the final months of living. The Connect Group does this with kindness, laughter and light.
I would like to express a special thank you to the family of Shirley Forbes, for giving permission to share her story and art work. Thanks also to the interviewees and Teri Perry for facilitating visits and calls.