When imagining the work carried out by The Fed’s community teams, there can be a tendency to think of the most dramatic, catastrophic cases. Whilst it is true that such clients occupy much of their time, focussing on them alone would be a mistake.
Doing so means overlooking an area of The Fed’s staff’s expertise which requires a different type of skill – namely to build a connection with people and meet their needs in a sensitive and appropriate way.
On a recent visit to a client’s home with a member of The Fed’s Volunteer Services team, I gained a first-person insight into the mental and physical toll involved in supporting some of our clients.
Betty*, a friendly, chatty nonagenarian, was being visited by Fed Volunteer Co-ordinator, Debra, to arrange for her to be assigned a volunteer on a weekly basis. Once a regular attendee of The Fed’s Coffee Stops, Betty’s declining health had left her housebound, and in need of support several times a day.
The challenge faced by Debra that day lay in the sensory barriers between them.
Despite her positivity and cheerful nature, Betty is almost totally deaf and blind, turning what might have been a ten-minute chat into a visit lasting almost an hour and a half.
Debra’s calm and sensitive nature allowed her to slow the conversation to a speed that Betty could understand, yet the scale of the task became apparent from the moment we arrived. Despite Debra writing ‘hello’ on a large whiteboard on hand to aid communication, it took Betty nearly thirty seconds to decipher the message.
It is almost impossible to convey the determination Debra displayed over a period of twenty-five minutes as she repeated and rephrased the same initial two questions over and over again. I watched as co-ordinator and client struggled to overcome the obstacles thrown up by ageing and the loss of senses.
It was clear how draining – both mentally and physically – it was for Debra. Constantly searching for new ways to frame the conversation, seeking different methods to communicate with Betty as simply as possible, she never allowed herself to become frustrated or downhearted – and Betty reciprocated in style, never straying from her cheerful and friendly persona.
I was not surprised at what unfolded in front of me – a half-decade in the organisation has taught me that the most complex and difficult situations may be waiting around the corner – but I was shocked.
Not by Betty’s condition – she was clearly content, satisfied in her own home and with the support from The Fed and her daily carers, and with the company provided by her beloved cat. My shock came from how draining the visit was for the coordinator – the physical toll of squatting on her haunches for over an hour to ensure she was both visible and audible to her client; how she had to raise her voice as loud as possible to have any sort of conversation; the constant and repetitive miscommunications and misunderstandings.
Again and again, the volume increasing each time, the same questions were passed back and forth from co-ordinator to client, and client to co-ordinator – tiny, incremental steps being achieved in understanding Betty’s wishes and enabling Debra to fulfil her needs.
The visit was a stark example of yet another hidden feature of The Fed’s work and the painstaking efforts made to ensure that no-one is left behind.
Eventually we left, exhausted and mission accomplished, but not before making Betty a hot drink and ensuring she was comfortable – and headed to the next appointment.
*Client’s name altered to preserve confidentiality.
Robert Marks, winter 2021