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Covid: Life on the frontline – Hayley’s story

Activities have always played a pivotal role in the care and well-being of residents at Royal Star & Garter. But lockdown changed things dramatically. Visits from entertainers and nearby schools stopped, outings ceased, and the activities teams in each Home had to adapt at very short notice. High Wycombe Activities & Volunteers Manager Hayley Helsdown looks at how she coped with the many challenges faced, and why, despite an uncertain future, there will always be “laughter, joy and singing” in the Home.


I still remember when this was all starting… I recall speaking with [Home Manager] Chelle (Daly). She was putting together a contingency plan for the worst case scenario, where 50% of staff were off sick, and I remember thinking ‘Wow this is serious’. There were talks of staff coming to stay in the building, to come and live-in, and that’s when it first started to hammer home just how serious it was going to be.

Activities have changed dramatically since the restrictions have come in. We used to spend a lot of time going out on trips, having pub lunches, going to the cinema, and we would regularly meet with some ex-services personnel at the local pub. But we haven’t been able to take residents out, and at times that has been tough. Now we’ve started bringing in take-away food. If somebody fancies a curry or a pizza we’ll try our hardest to accommodate that. So we’re still offering that same opportunity to taste different food, in-house.


We’ve also not been able to have entertainers in the Home. But we’re blessed with wonderful grounds that has meant we have had some entertainers perform out in the garden area at a very safe distance, with the residents sitting at safe distances outside. We are reliant on the weather. Sometimes it’s raining and too cold, other times it’s been too hot for people to be outside. But we’re really thankful to the entertainers that have come, they’ve definitely helped to lift everybody’s spirits.


Keeping residents in touch with their loved ones has also been vital to their well-being, and we’ve helped make this happen as much as possible. That was really important, especially when family members couldn’t visit. We would use FaceTime and Skype video calls, we made telephone calls. If somebody wasn’t able to communicate particularly well, a member of staff would sit with that person and give family members an update. We’d also receive information back from the family. I think it all helped bridge the gap. Families were very supportive and understanding. They knew we were keeping the residents safe and looking after them. They knew they were in good hands. Now we’re helping arrange socially-distanced outdoor family visits, and afterwards residents tell us what’s been going on with their loved ones. It’s great to see.

How we put on activities inside the Home has also changed. Before we may have had one big session in the reception area for a particular activity. Now, so that we can maintain social bubbles, we’ve split up our staff and rotate them through each individual family (there are currently three individual families, or areas, in the Home). They’re a lot smaller and individually focussed. If one family area likes an activity, we try to replicate it in the other family areas. We’ve had mixed success with it. Sometimes things have worked and sometimes they haven’t. I think it’s just a case of perseverance. The things that have worked have been some of our themed days. We had Alice in Wonderland tea parties which worked very well. I think anything with food and drink always works! I think to myself ‘What do I enjoy?’ It’s food, drink, people, a bit of music!


When an activity isn’t going great we look at how we can modify what we are doing. We get other equipment, have ideas and adapt. We also have great support from all the staff – kitchen, care staff – so sometimes we might not have a tea party planned, but someone might ask for one. We go speak to the kitchen, and that afternoon there’s a tea party and singing!


We have always prided ourselves on delivering person-centred care, and we’re trying to undertake more individual projects with residents. We’ve got one gentleman who’s been helping us paint some garden furniture. It’s been a lovely project for him and it’s certainly making the furniture a lot brighter and more colourful, and gives that sensory aspect. We’re also doing knitting projects with some of the ladies, knitting squares which we’ll make into a blanket and give to somebody less fortunate.

From an activities’ perspective, we’re the fun in the Home, we’re seen to be the life and soul, so some days it’s tough to have that smile on and to think of new ideas. But we are spurred on by the group of residents we work with. You hear their military stories, know what they’ve been through and some of the challenges they’ve faced, and you want to give it your all because they’ve been through so much worse.


They’re brave about it, and throughout all of this, the residents have been very understanding. I’m sure they find it difficult, and not being able to see your loved ones as much or getting out and about must be hard. They’re a very stoic group of individuals and I think they have taken to the changes particularly well. I’m just very thankful to be here with such wonderful people, residents and staff alike. Sometimes things do get a bit overwhelming, a bit tiresome and then somebody else will come and lift you back up, make you smile, make you laugh.


I have to say I think the teams behind us have been absolutely fantastic. The level of support that we all receive, support from the directors in terms of communication and emails, particularly at the beginning with the lockdown, understanding the wider implications it would have for other staff and their loved ones. It’s helped me come to work each day thinking ‘Let’s have a great day’.


We have been fortunate in High Wycombe, but it (COVID-19) hasn’t passed us by completely. We have had staff here who‘ve lost loved ones, and I’ve known of people I used to go to school with whose parents have passed away. From a personal perspective as well I’ve lost people this year – friends and family – and that’s very difficult having to adjust to not being able to go to funerals, not being able to support other loved ones and things. I think it’s very difficult trying to support one another when you can’t always physically be there.


Being part of the activities team, you always have to forward plan one or two months in advance. So by now we should have a very comprehensive November and December plan, they are some of our busiest months with Remembrance services and Christmas. It’s going to look very different if things stay the same as they are, it’s going to be quieter in terms of not being able to have entertainers and schools come in. But I’m confident that our team will pick up that slack and there will still be laughter and joy and singing and everybody will band together and make the time as enjoyable as they can. We do the best that we can. We have to stay hopeful, to continue to push through. We don’t know how long we’re going to be in this situation.