The Waterford Contact Project is a simple concept but one which is proving to have a significant impact across the city.
The project is the result of local people and organisations working together to support older people.
It’s aimed at promoting interaction among older people and ensuring older people stay connected within their community.
To learn more about the project and what’s involved, I called to St Brigid’s Family & Community Centre on the Lower Yellow Road last week where I met with the project coordinator, a volunteer home visitor and a visitee.
“In 2007 a survey was carried out around the different needs of the community and it was highlighted that it would be useful and worthwhile to have a befriending and visitation programme for older people,” explained Waterford Contact Project Coordinator Mags Drohan.
“St Brigid’s met with different organisations that work with older people across the city and asked them if they would be interested in setting up this programme. In 2008 we worked on getting it set-up and we started recruiting volunteers in 2009.”
The project commenced at end of 2009 and since then many volunteers have been recruited.
“We currently have about 25 people out visiting in the community on a regular basis,” said Mags.
“Each older person is matched with a volunteer that we feel they will get on well with and have similar things in common and a similar personality. The volunteer will visit each week for an hour or two.”
Joan Quinlan from Knockhouse was one of the first volunteer home visitors to initially come on board.
“I was interested in volunteering as I had a bit of time on my hands,” she explained.
“When I heard about the programme, it was something I was very interested in. The programme really jumped out at me and from the time I started up until my most recent visit I haven’t regretted it. I love it. It’s very worthwhile. I think older people are the most vulnerable group in our community.”
But it’s not just the person whom Joan visits who benefits from the project.
She believes she greatly benefits from her involvement in the Waterford Contact Project.
“I even think I get more out of it than the person I’m visiting! Older people always have something to say. There’s never a dull moment as they are steeped in history. You get attached and form a relationship. It’s lovely,” she said.
“The woman I visit is housebound and she looks forward to my visit. I previously visited her husband and she now tells me I’m part of the family.”
Correctly matching a suitable volunteer with an older person is an important aspect of the project which takes considerable time.
“It’s very important because if you have nothing in common with the person it’s hard to make conversation regardless of how chatty they are,” said Joan.
Anyone over 18 years of age is eligible to become a volunteer but must undergo a selection produce, interview, reference check, Gard vetting, and an induction programme.
“When I first started I wondered what I needed to be trained for in order to sit and speak with an older person, but the training is really important,” said Joan.
The volunteer and visitee are then introduced to each other and a mutual agreement is decided upon regarding the visiting schedule.
“Consistency and routine to an older person are very important. You can’t chop and change every week. It has to be structured,” said Joan.
She believes the project also offers the opportunity to link the older person with other services which may be required.
“You can pick up on certain things,” she said.
“If certain services are needed such as a chiropodist for example, I would report to Mags. Many older people are not aware of many of the services which are out there.”
May Morrissey is one visitee who has benefitted from the Waterford Contact Project.
“From the very first day my volunteer came to me, we got on so well. We’ve built a rapport. I knew her Mam and Dad so I would know a lot of people that she would also know. It’s an outlet for her as well as for me,” said May.
“I look forward to her coming and we just have a chat. We put the world to right!” she laughed.
She is encouraging other older people to avail of the service.
“I’m not as badly off as some people as I have a great family living nearby. But it’s nice to also have somebody different around,” she said.
“You don’t have to be on your best behaviour or put on any airs and graces, you are just yourself. It’s very informal. It’s a cup of tea and a chat.”
Mags is delighted with the feedback which the project has so far received.
“Volunteers get as much out of it as the older person,” she said.
“They are contributing to their community in a really valuable way. The older people love to have somebody pop in for a chat and company. Reminiscing is a big aspect of the enjoyment. Older people have a lot of stories about Waterford and our volunteers love hearing those stories and learning about the history of Waterford. A lot of information is passed on.”
She added: “For some older people, when they become involved in this project they may hear about other projects that are happening in the community and they may link in with other social events and different projects.”
May is certainly a great example of this spin-off effect.
She recently participated in an intergenerational project between the city’s younger and older citizens.
“It was such fun,” she said.
“We did a cookery course, one morning a week for a few hours. We were each allocated a younger person to work with. It was great for the kids because they got to know us in a different capacity. We weren’t just sitting and talking at them. We were mixing with them.”
As part of the intergenerational project, the young and old also worked on the ‘Fair Day in Waterford’ song which was performed during the Waterford Harvest Festival and released on CD.
May believes there should be more collaboration between younger and older people.
“It would help younger people to have a bit more respect for older people,” she said.
“They’re benefitting and we’re benefitting because we’re both learning.”
Funding is a big issue as Joan, who is also a voluntary member of the Board of Directors of St Brigid’s Family & Community Centre, explained.
“The HSE fund half the allowance we need to run the project and Mags and the steering group need to find the other funds. There’s nothing structured so we don’t know what we’re getting from one year to the next. We’re holding our breath to think who’s going to fund us and that’s not right because the older people will suffer if it’s cut. It’s so worthwhile that it needs to keep going,” she said.
Both Joan and Mags show a genuine passion for the Waterford Contact Project and both believe it has great growth potential.
“There’s definitely room for expansion,” added Mags.
“We’ve had requests for volunteers to visit areas outside the city. At the moment we focus just on Waterford City and suburbs, but if we get a request from outside the city we try our best.”
She added: “Research carried out on these projects has proven that they help in terms of overall well-being, and physical and emotional health. These projects help contribute to reducing the need for longer term care.”
So, what advice is there for any prospective volunteers?
“You have to be interested in old people and you have to have an open mind,” said Joan.
“Come along to any of the information evenings. You’re not obliged to sign up. Just come and hear about the project.”
A Volunteer Home Visitor only visits on the request of an older person. If you are an older person and would like a Volunteer to visit you or if you would like more information on the Project or volunteer with the Project, phone Project Coordinator Mags Drohan in St Brigid’s Family & Community Centre, 37 Lower Yellow Road on 051 375261.