Lorna Bryson, Senior Service Coordinator, reflects on 10 Years of OPAL in West Lothian which support the over 60s to live independently in their own homes and stay connected to their local community.
Responding to medical research on the impact of social isolation on older people's physical and mental heath and a more specific demographic forecast in West Lothian that projected that by 2033 the number of older people (65 - 74 plus) would increase by 80%, we had an oportunity to do something that would make a difference.
I was keen to work in the third sector and saw that Cyrenians were advertising for an administrator for a befriending service aimed at maintaining or increasing independence to enable older people to remain living independently in their own homes and connected to their local community.
When I started, it was all about setting up the new service. It was the first Cyrenians service aimed specifically at supporting older people. We had to build from scratch - setting up recording methods, creating work processes, recruiting volunteers and everything else. We started with a small team and had no volunteers so part of the initial work was to start recruiting!
Starting one-to-one support...
The service was primarily focussed on face-to-face and telephone befriending. Our referrals came from Health and Social Care professionals and then self-referrals were introduced at a later stage.
There was a big influx of referrals when we launched, and we learned very quickly that we needed to recruit volunteers to cover the large amount of people who needed this support.
At that time West Lothian was lacking services for older people with only the Food Train, 50+ Network and mental health charity MOOD already established.
Befriending was so effective and we were very quickly hearing amazing stories of the difference volunteer support was making to people’s lives which made it all so rewarding.
“You are all life savers, just to hear a voice – you can go for days not hearing anyone. You have saved a life.” – OPAL Service user
Introducing social and activity groups
A big change took place in 2016 when we introduced our first group. We were asked by the local authority to set up a social group at housing development, Royal Scot Court in Bathgate as their status was changing from sheltered to retirement housing therefore activity funding was cut. We worked with Carers of West Lothian, consulting with the tenants to find out what they wanted to do and our first group, Nibble & Natter was launched. Next up was Singing for Health in partnership with Xcite/Ageing Well and before long, we were running several groups in various different areas of West Lothian.
Groups were introduced to provide spaces where local people could meet to connect socially, interact through activities and learn new skills.
We rebranded at this time and became OPAL (Older People Active Lives) to fit with the groups addition to our service offering. This name was chosen from a shortlist from suggestions submitted by staff, volunteers and clients.
For the first six years of the service, we were based in the upstairs offices at South Bridge Street in Bathgate but in 2019 we moved into the centre of town to our current location at 27 George Street. The new premises allowed us to have a much more accessible space, including ground floor entry, where we could host activities, groups and various events.
In the initial years of the groups we were doing a lot of planning upfront whereas now we take a much more personalised approach. We take regular feedback from the attendees and use that information to tailor each group to the attendees requirements and wishes.
“Coming to the group is a new lifeline” – OPAL service user
When the pandemic hit, the service needed to completely diversify to enable our high-risk participants to continue to access support. In-person visits changed to telephone calls, emails, texts, video calls or pen-pals. We carried out deliveries with whatever people needed to keep them going - jigsaws, CD’s, DVD’s, shopping etc. Weekly activity packs were mailed out with gentle exercises to keep people mobile, information on local services, wellbeing activities and puzzles for cognitive stimulation. We launched online groups and even held a remote event, delivering afternoon teas and bringing people together online.
To support the recovery from the pandemic, we received additional funding to introduce community capacity building. This allows us to work with communities, often in areas of deprivation or isolated due to their rural location, and identify existing resources that we can put to better use to better serve the people who live there. We work with individuals and groups to develop activities local to them and encourage them to support one another and re-build thriving communities.
“I would have been lost without everything you have done for me, it’s made a big difference” – OPAL Service User
One of my lasting memories is carrying out my first client assessment as Service Coordinator. Betty, who was feeling isolated and keen to meet with other people was matched with a volunteer befriender who introduced her to her local “Knit & Natter” group and later to activity group, Blackburn Buddies. It was great to see her confidence increase over time and witness the many friendships she developed through attending the groups. Betty remained independent, in her own home and socially connected until the last few months of her life when she moved in with family.
The Singing for Health group is another favourite memory. This was delivered alongside our very first partner, local leisure trust, Xcite, as part of their ageing well programme. - Just going along in the early days and seeing the incredible impact that the music and singing had on those participants was so uplifting. This group is now delivered by community volunteers who give up their own time to deliver this joyful session.
Reflecting on the past and looking to the future
A big change over the past 10 years is just how the service has grown and become recognised and respected for the work that we do. From a staff team of four to a team of now nine staff and more than 70 volunteers with many other individuals and local businesses supporting us through various means. That's been very satisfying.
In 2022, Cyrenians were successful in their funding bid to implement OPAL in the Borders, a service based on the successful OPAL West Lothian model.
In June 2023, OPAL West Lothian was successful in its tender bid and received a new contract from West Lothian Council for the next four years.
Cyrenians has also grown so much over the 10 years and OPAL is now part of the Health & Wellbeing pillar, working closely with Golden Years and RESET who support older people across Edinburgh. In addition, our colleagues at Cyrenians Food Education are also part of this pillar group, delivering cook clubs and lunch clubs across Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders. Together we collectively promote communities coming together for “something to eat and someone to eat with”.
Our mission is to bring people together to support one another and live well.