People who have lost everything in the catastrophic Australian bushfires will be among those to benefit from a grant of AUS $150,000 from the Masonic Charitable Foundation to the Disaster Relief Funds set up by Australian Freemasons
The grant from the English and Welsh Freemasons’ charity will see $50,000 given to the Australian Freemasons’ Disaster Relief Funds in each of the three states most affected by the blaze, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
The unprecedented fires have seen 27 deaths, including a number of firefighters. 2,136 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone, more than 1,200 of which have burned down since New Year’s Eve. Thousands of Australians are living in more than a dozen large evacuation centres, having been forced to flee the blaze.
Meanwhile hundreds of homes and businesses have been lost in Victoria and South Australia. Many Australians have lost everything and the impact on the livelihoods of ordinary people is vast. The economy will take many years to fully recover.
An estimated 18 million acres of land have been burned – an area almost as large as Ireland. There has been an enormous impact on the environment, with up to a billion animals being killed. The death toll among koala bears alone has led to calls for the animals to be placed on the endangered species list.
The Masonic Charitable Foundation is funded by Freemasons, their families and friends, from across England and Wales.
David Innes, Chief Executive of the Masonic Charitable Foundation, said: 'These terrible fires are an ongoing disaster for thousands of Australians. I’m very pleased that English and Welsh Freemasons are working together with Freemasons in Australia to raise funds to help the victims of the blazes, many of whom have lost everything.'
The Blackpool Opera House Theatre, in the winter gardens, was the grand setting for a spectacular ‘night with the stars’ to raise £14,141 for the West Lancashire MCF 2021 Festival and a further £5,000 for the charity Care after Combat
West Lancashire’s Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison, together with his wife Maureen, were joined by Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) Chief Executive David Innes and his wife, Annemarie. Local civic leaders, including the Mayor and Mayoress of Blackpool, Councillor Gary Coleman and his wife Councillor Debbie Coleman, were joined by over 1,000 Freemasons along with their partners and members of the public, to enjoy the show which was hosted by comedian Jim Davidson.
Among the stars performing were Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies, star of Opportunity Knocks and vocalists Emilie Jasmine and Adam Lacey, who sang songs from Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. Lynn Fox also performed many hits from the 60's before the Chorley Croft and Culcheth Pipe Band closed the first half of the show.
In the second half, over 90 members of the George Formby Society performed some of their famous songs, Meet the Folkers then entertained the audience with traditional Irish folk music and comedian Mick Miller closed the show to thunderous applause.
At the end of the performance Jim Davidson thanked the audience for supporting his charity – Care after Combat – with a wonderful cheque for £5,000.
The West Lancashire MCF 2021 Festival Vice President David Winder expressed his thanks to the organisers, performers and audience. He revealed that the show had raised £14,141 for the Festival.
After the show, Tony and Maureen Harrison hosted a reception at Blackpool Masonic Club, where the Mayor and Mayoress, were also given a tour of the lodge rooms.
Small charities will now be able to apply for multi-year grants to cover basic running expenses and other core funding costs, following a major policy shift at the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) – one of the largest grant-making charities in the country
Until recently, the MCF, in common with many other charitable foundations, has tended to concentrate on project-based funding, which generally provides more measurable results. The MCF also gives one-off unrestricted grants of up to £5,000 to small charities for general charitable purposes.
However, having identified the growing issue of smaller charities facing difficulties due to lack of core funding, the MCF has bucked the trend amongst similar grant-giving bodies to address the issue and has expanded its current programme of non-ring-fenced grants.
The new grants are available to charities with an income of no more than £500,000 a year, often much less, and will be for a maximum of £5,000 per year over three years. The first round of these extended unrestricted core funding grants has just been announced for 22 small charities. It is hoped that these multi-year unrestricted funding grants will help sustain charities, enabling them to deliver services to those most in need. The MCF aims to monitor and evaluate these grants, and hopes to share any learning within the sector regarding the effectiveness of this grant-giving.
Funded by freemasons, their families and friends, the Masonic Charitable Foundation is the national freemasons’ charity. In 2017, the MCF provided grants of more than £5.6 million to 770 national, regional and local charities across England and Wales.
David Innes, Chief Executive of the Masonic Charitable Foundation, said: 'There are many small charities that struggle with basic running costs. Project-based funding is fine, but if they can’t pay the electricity bill or put petrol in the car, delivering services to clients can be difficult if not impossible.
'Many charities cease their vital activities because this kind of funding is not available. This is why the MCF’s new core funding initiative, on behalf of the Freemasons of England and Wales, is so important.'
Thousands of people across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe whose lives have been devastated by Cyclone Idai will be given access to clean water, as well as tarpaulins, plastic sheets and other emergency supplies, thanks to a grant from the Masonic Charitable Foundation
The money is being donated to Plan International UK which is working to help survivors, including young women and children, who are at particular risk.
The grant from the Freemasons will provide jerry cans, water purification tablets and buckets to thousands of people who have lost everything and are at risk of potentially-deadly waterborne diseases.
Over 750 people have died in the three countries on the south-east coast of Africa with Mozambique suffering the highest human fatalities. As the death toll continues to rise, over 260,000 children have been affected in the country and at least 350,000 people are at risk from rising flood waters. In Malawi, close to a million people have been affected with nearly half a million being children.
Plan International UK is a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). The DEC brings together 14 leading UK aid charities in times of crisis, to maximise the impact and help children and families who need it most.
The Masonic Charitable Foundation is funded by Freemasons, their families and friends, from across England and Wales.
Ebbie Muhire (28) is sheltering at a church in southern Malawi with five family members including her youngest child, a three-year-old toddler.
'The challenges we are facing are mainly crowded and unpleasant sleeping areas and poor sanitation and hygiene facilities because our utensils were damaged in the rain and now we are all using same equipment.' Ebbie says. 'The children, especially the young ones are at risk of getting sick.'
Tanya Barron, Chief Executive of Plan International UK, said: 'We’re hugely grateful to the Masonic Charitable Foundation for supporting our disaster response in Southern Africa. This generous grant will make a big difference to thousands of people affected by this devastating cyclone and help get their lives back on track.'
David Innes, Chief Executive of the Masonic Charitable Foundation' said: 'Cyclone Idai has devastated the lives of many thousands of people, with, as usual, women and children bearing the brunt of the suffering. I’m very pleased that the Masonic Charitable Foundation was able to move so quickly and provide funds for Plan International UK’s vital work at the heart of the disaster zone.'
With the number of people experiencing loneliness in later life on the rise, the Masonic Charitable Foundation is committed to tackling the issue, as Chief Executive David Innes explains
We’re approaching the end of another year during which Freemasons have supported each other and members of their local communities through charitable work at both lodge and Provincial level, as well as through the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF). This year, your charity has supported around 5,000 Freemasons and their family members alongside 500 local and national charities – all thanks to your enduring support and generosity.
I hope that for most of us, the festive season means spending cherished moments with our families and catching up with friends. As diaries fill up, it can sometimes be a challenge to visit everyone we would like to see before the New Year. In contrast, for many older people, Christmas can be blighted by a deep sense of loneliness.
A HELPING HAND AT CHRISTMAS
Almost one million older people will spend Christmas Day alone this year, with only their television for company. The population is not only growing in size but also ageing; this means the number of people experiencing loneliness as they get older is increasing. More than half of people aged 75 and above live alone and 200,000 of them will not have had a single conversation with a friend or family member in the last month. As well as age, factors such as poor health and disability can also contribute to a sense of isolation.
Through grants to local and national charities, Freemasonry is committed to tackling the issues of loneliness and social isolation in later life – and that doesn’t only apply to Christmas. We are excited to announce a new partnership between the MCF and 13 local Age UK branches that will support 10,000 people. It is our hope that the older people supported by this new initiative will live happier, healthier and more sociable lives.
Within the masonic community, we are lucky to have a fantastic system of almoners looking out for those who are lonely, as well as those who are struggling with financial, health, family or care-related issues. Their work and our own is bolstered by a dedicated network of Freemasons including charity stewards, Visiting Volunteers, fundraisers and Festival Provinces, working together to help us spread goodwill this festive season and throughout the rest of the year.
Finally, I should like to take this opportunity to thank you for making our work possible, to remind you that we are your charity, and to urge you to get in contact with us should you need help.
Our online impact report celebrates all that Freemasonry and the MCF have achieved together this year. You can view it now at www.mcf.org.uk/impact
As the London Symphony Orchestra helps to boost the provision of musical opportunities for young people with special needs across east London, we look at the MCF’s role and why former Lord Mayor Sir Andrew Parmley is lending his support
At LSO St Luke’s, an 18th-century Grade I listed church in London designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, it’s Make Music Day. The restored building is home to the expansive community and music education programme run by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). Young people with learning difficulties or disabilities have come with their families to the centre in east London to explore different types of music-making. They play the drums, the violin and other instruments alongside musicians from the LSO, clearly enjoying the accessibility of the day and being able to share an activity specifically designed for them to take part in as a family – free of anxiety.
Make Music Day is part of the LSO’s On Track Special Schools project, which encourages creative music-making, devising models for working and nurturing the talent of the teachers and young people.
‘It’s great to have something that all of them as a family can come to – it’s not just about the young person who happens to have a learning disability,’ says David Nunn, project manager for LSO On Track. ‘For the family to have activities that they really feel are for them, that they can feel comfortable in, has been really significant.’
Through the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), London Freemasons have awarded £100,000 to LSO On Track to help produce inclusive ensembles, which will enable young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) to develop their musical skills alongside young people without SEND, using a combination of assistive music technology and traditional and electronic instruments. Ensembles will come together in autumn 2019 for a major performance.
‘This particular project will involve LSO musicians and specialist workshop leaders visiting schools within the boroughs, delivering exploratory music-making workshops to the pupils,’ says MCF chief executive David Innes. ‘Pupils who show an interest or an aptitude will be able to have further sessions to develop new skills and explore new instruments, sounds and composition techniques. There will be the chance for them to develop and grow, culminating in a performance for friends and family.’
APPEAL FROM THE LORD MAYOR
The proposal to contribute to the LSO On Track Special Schools project was submitted to the MCF’s grant-making programme via the Lord Mayor’s Appeal charity on behalf of the outgoing Lord Mayor of London Sir Andrew Parmley, who was recognised with a knighthood in this year’s New Year Honours for his lifelong services to music, education and civic engagement.
‘The LSO is the best orchestra in the world, and its outreach programme sees musicians working with young people, particularly those with learning difficulties. These young people, who wouldn’t ordinarily encounter professional musicians and real instruments, are able to have a go – composing and playing together and experiencing the joy that making music together can bring to a person,’ says Parmley, whose background is in music education.
‘The MCF has seen the benefit of this work and dug deep to find £100,000. We’re so grateful to them. As I owe most of my life to music, it’s very important to me that a large part of last year’s Lord Mayor’s Appeal was about making music and giving young people that advantage.’
The idea for LSO On Track came about in 2005, when London won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics. ‘The LSO started thinking about the position of culture and what it could do in that area of east London, which was considered to be on our doorstep,’ explains the LSO’s Nunn.
‘From the beginning, there was an ambition to ensure that there was provision for young people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities,’ Nunn says. ‘There are various barriers that young people with learning disabilities might have to learning an instrument in a traditional way or being able to do things in a group setting. So, there was a desire to find ways to make sure they were included and to engage with them.’
The top-level musicians who work with LSO On Track have experienced first-hand the effects of Make Music Days. Violinist Naoko Keatley has been playing with the LSO for four years, taking an active role in its outreach work, playing to and with adults and children with learning difficulties and disabilities. She’s found that music provides an alternative means of communication for some individuals.
‘You really feel the impact it has. Sometimes someone may not be able to speak, but they find a way of showing their appreciation through the music or start singing or dancing. And sometimes someone will pick up a random instrument and show a real talent for it. It also lets participants interact with each other, meet new kids and develop the social side of things.’
The project is not exclusively focused on classical instruments and makes use of digital technology. ‘It means that kids who don’t have the capacity to hold instruments are able to participate,’ says Keatley. ‘It really brings out this talent that would otherwise be hidden.’
Nunn adds: ‘The musicians benefit massively. We’ve got a huge pool of players who do this kind of work. Expanding the programme has allowed us to do more training for them, which has been great. They do something very specialist and they spend a lot of time on the concert platform. For them to have that individual connection with someone is hugely rewarding.’
The project’s aim to create new opportunities for young people with SEND dovetails with the MCF’s wider commitment to combatting social exclusion and isolation.‘
The masonic community is passionate about giving individuals who are facing a challenge in life a helping hand to get over that challenge and make the most of their lives,’ says Innes. ‘At the end of the two years I hope that more than 1,000 children will have been supported by this project and been able to participate in one way or another. That was an important point for us – to reach as many people as we can.’
‘The musicians benefit massively. For them to have that individual connection with someone is hugely rewarding’
Why musical inclusion is important
A growing body of research suggests that taking part in musical activities can provide a range of emotional, social and educational benefits to people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). Listening to and making music stimulates different areas of the brain, supporting verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as encouraging creativity, self-expression and social interaction.
However, a lack of funding, combined with a lack of local expertise, means that access to musical opportunities can be limited. There are few SEND music resources available outside of the school system, posing barriers for those wishing to take their participation in musical activities further. And young people with SEND attending mainstream schools are at risk of complete musical exclusion due to lack of knowledge and experience among staff.
‘It’s really important that organisations like the LSO make the resources they have available to people who may not otherwise be able to access them,’ says David Nunn from the LSO. ‘It can open doors for them and give them the opportunity to see what they are capable of. We work with a lot of schools and we want to offer students somewhere to go out of school time where they can pursue their own musical interests, working with the orchestra’s professional musicians.’
With the MCF receiving 10,000 enquiries in the last year from Freemasons and their families, Chief Executive David Innes wants to reach out to still more people as the new masonic season begins
In July, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) held another very successful meeting for its members at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. The meeting coincided with a family fun day being held by the Province of Hertfordshire. I’m pleased to report that our MCF members are playing a greater role in helping us assess and monitor the grants we make on your behalf to local charities in your Provinces.
We are keen to maintain an accurate picture of how our funding is helping vulnerable people in the wider community, and our members are integral in helping us to continue to make and measure the impact of your donations.
This year is proving to be a year of progress. In the first six months of 2018, around 2,700 grants were awarded to Freemasons and their family members facing a financial, health, family or care need, totalling over £5 million. When these figures are compared with 2017’s, we can see that this is a 4 per cent increase in the number of grants awarded and a 23 per cent increase in the value of those grants. In other words, the masonic community is giving more money to more people facing a difficult time in their lives.
It seems that the message is steadily reaching more Freemasons; their married, life or widowed partners; and their children and grandchildren. Every year that passes, we see an average 3 per cent increase in enquiries for our support. In the last year alone, around 10,000 enquiries have been received – that’s 10,000 Freemasons and their families who are struggling to cope and got in touch to see if the MCF could help.
As well as reaching more people, we are constantly striving to show evidence of the impact Freemasons make on people’s lives rather than simply reporting the number of grants awarded and the amount spent. As part of this, a survey was undertaken of all Freemasons and their family members who recently received MCF support. It sought to learn more about the difference the grants and support services have made to their lives and to gather suggestions for improving the experience of accessing support.
I am very pleased to say that a key finding of our research is that, over the last 15 months, the number of days between processing an enquiry and paying for a grant has decreased significantly, which means the masonic community is getting even better at delivering support to people when they need it.
‘We are your charity, and we are here when you need us, for as long as you need us’
A mile in my shoes
For Freemason Mark Ormrod, the battlefield injuries he sustained proved to be a springboard to reinvent his life. But not all veterans respond the same way. Peter Watts finds out how, thanks to masonic funding, Combat Stress provides psychiatric support for ex-personnel
Christmas Eve in 2007 began with an ordinary patrol for Mark Ormrod, a Royal Marine on tour in Afghanistan. It ended with Mark in a coma and undergoing a life-saving operation after an improvised explosive device was triggered, leaving him without both legs and an arm.
As a triple amputee, Mark found that Freemasonry provided some of the support he needed to get on with his life, having been initiated into the Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, in 2008 while in a wheelchair. Today, Mark has prosthetic limbs and is an author, mentor and motivational speaker. He credits Freemasonry with providing invaluable support at a difficult time.
‘It’s a really important part of dealing with stuff in life, having people around you as friends and brothers,’ he says. ‘It was very reassuring to know I had people who were encouraging and empowering, and as I progressed through the lodge it helped in terms of confidence and leadership. It’s helped holistically, in all areas. I also like the fact that we work with charities. That’s very fulfilling – being able to help other people is very rewarding.’
One of those charities is Combat Stress, an organisation that supports veterans with mental health issues. With increased pressure on the NHS and more former servicemen and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following gruelling experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) has awarded a £60,000 grant to Combat Stress to fund a community psychiatric nurse operating in the southwest of England, where Mark now lives.
For David Innes, the Chief Executive of the MCF and himself a retired British Army officer, there is a vital need for masonic support. ‘One of the core areas that the MCF supports on behalf of Freemasonry is helping as many people as we can who are suffering from social isolation and social exclusion – people who are not able to participate in society for a wide variety of reasons,’ says the former member of the Corps of Royal Engineers who reached the rank of Brigadier.
‘If we can help those suffering from PTSD or mental health issues come to terms with the challenges they face, it gives them a chance to make something of the rest of their lives. Combat Stress does some fantastic work in this particular field.’
MENTAL HEALTH FOCUS
The MCF was particularly impressed with the focus Combat Stress gives to veterans with mental health issues, operating dedicated services from three regional hubs. ‘They are very focussed on helping those suffering from mental health issues – that is their core business. It’s what they are particularly good at, and they have a very good structure,’ says Innes. ‘The statistics they produce show that, in the vast majority of cases, they allow individuals to make significant improvements so they can get on with their lives.’
Combat Stress will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2019, having been founded after the First World War to support soldiers returning from the trenches. Today it offers clinical care so former servicemen and women have the tools and mechanisms they need to cope with their conditions. Care comes in a variety of forms, from occupational therapy and group counselling to a six-week residential course.
The community psychiatric nurse funded by the MCF grant will provide support to around 500 ex-personnel. ‘The nurse will cover Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Bristol,’ explains Kirstie Tong, the trusts and foundations manager at Combat Stress. ‘In 2017, in the southwest, the community psychiatric nurse did 72 assessments for veterans with combat stress and 10 other assessments, and had 47 one-to-one appointments, 90 group contacts and 51 support-group contacts. The MCF grant will contribute towards a large part of the salary of this nurse until 2020. We are hugely grateful for the MCF and its continued support, which makes our work possible.’
Mark Ormrod didn’t require the support of Combat Stress as he recovered but recognises the importance of this type of work, particularly for former members of the armed forces, who may see mental health issues as a sign of weakness. ‘Although I’ve not worked with Combat Stress, I know it offers counselling, residential care and therapy,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of stigma in the military with regard to mental health. People don’t always like going out and asking for support, but if it’s serious, you can point them towards the professionals at Combat Stress.’
This stigma is slowly beginning to disappear. Tong says that while veterans of the Falklands War take an average of 15 years before contacting Combat Stress for support, a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan will do so in three years. That is unquestionably a positive thing, but it also means that Combat Stress faces increasing pressure on its services. ‘We have seen a 143 per cent increase in referrals in the last decade,’ says Tong. ‘We now support around 3,000 veterans across the armed forces each year and have 2,000 referrals. Around 80 per cent have PTSD and have experienced multiple traumas in their combat career.’
As Innes acknowledges from his own experience in the Corps of Royal Engineers, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were particularly traumatic: ‘Many of the men and women we are supporting now will have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intensity of those operations was ferocious.
‘People will have been exposed to events that, to be honest, are simply horrific,’ he says. ‘We are seeing an increase in PTSD as a result of those operations. Providing support to organisations like Combat Stress is vital. We are lucky today, because more is known about mental health than 40 years ago when I joined the army. It is discussed more widely, but soldiers still don’t tend to talk about things like that.’
Mark has found he can talk about his experiences with the Freemasons, who have provided him with an important support network after he left the friendship of the Royal Marines behind. ‘It filled that space, very much so,’ he says. ‘It’s the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the sense of belonging. Having that other family outside of your own, good people that you can rely on. I’m a little bit surprised at how important it’s become. What I love is that I have three children, I have three limbs missing, I have a full-time job, I travel a lot, and if I can’t make a meeting, I never get made to feel bad. They always say family first, then work, then lodge. That has allowed it to become a big part of my life. It’s never felt like hard work.’
A veteran’s story
David is a Royal Air Force veteran who started experiencing stress after leaving the armed services. After he had a stroke, he began to have anxiety attacks.
Eventually, David contacted Combat Stress for advice and began to attend community group sessions.
‘The groups are great,’ David says. ‘We are all different ages and from different walks of life, but in many ways we are all the same and experiencing the same things. ‘It’s made a huge difference to my happiness. The Combat Stress sessions help me better understand why I feel the way I do.
‘In the military community we tend to think “just get on with it”, and unfortunately this might put people off seeking help. I’d say to others: listen to those close to you. You owe it to them to at least make that call to Combat Stress. You can be anonymous, but just talk to someone.’
Mark Ormrod is still feeling the effects of the landmine he stepped on 11 years ago.
Quick action from his fellow Marines, and an innovative procedure carried out aboard a Chinook helicopter en route to the hospital, saved his life.
Mark woke up in Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, with both legs amputated above the knee and his right arm amputated above the elbow. The first triple amputee in the UK to survive the Afghanistan conflict, Mark was told by doctors he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Mark, however, decided to use his setback as a springboard for growth and reinvention.
He is now a motivational speaker, a peak performance coach and the author of the autobiographical Man Down. He has not used a wheelchair since June 2009.
While spring may be the traditional time for change, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) is continually looking for ways to refine the way it works for the benefit of supporters and beneficiaries, according to Chief Executive David Innes
Over recent months, MCF staff, trustees and representatives from the masonic community have been working to create a strategy for the next five years. We have a clear vision for the future, which will see us enhance our support and services, improve our ways of working and raise our profile.
Just as important as our plans is the manner in which we hope to deliver them. We have developed three core values to guide us. Firstly, being responsive to need; to listen and provide appropriate support to the communities with which we work. Secondly, making a difference; to be compassionate and dedicated to changing people’s lives in ways that have a positive impact. Thirdly, striving for excellence; to always work in a professional and innovative way to provide the best possible support to our beneficiaries and donors.
Another development is our new Charity Grants programme, designed to fund projects covering specific areas of need in society and to enable charities to more easily identify whether they are eligible for support. The programme will also see us increasing our funding for charities that need support with day-to-day running costs.
Around 85 per cent of charities in England and Wales have incomes below £500,000, and for these, a small grant for day-to-day costs can have a big impact.
‘Thanks to you, thousands of masonic families can now afford to pay their bills and play an active role in society’
HELP IS AT HAND
None of these innovations and improvements would be possible without your ongoing support. We have already seen the launch of five more Festival appeals in support of our work; I have had the privilege of attending many of these launches and have been inspired by the interest and enthusiasm from everyone I have met in the Provinces.
Thanks to you, thousands of masonic families can now afford to pay their bills and play an active role in society, and others can access life-saving treatment or quality care services.
As always, if you need support, or know of somebody who does, please do not hesitate to contact us on our enquiry line (0800 035 60 90). If we are unable to assist you directly, we will always direct you towards other organisations that may be able to help.
I hope that the spring of 2018 is a positive time for you and your families, and wish you all the very best for the rest of the year.
Whether it’s paying bills or buying Christmas presents, we are increasingly being driven online to conduct sometimes complex transactions. Peter Watts finds out how masonic funding in Leicestershire is helping to close the digital divide for an older generation
Lindsay Prince volunteers as a Digital Champion, delivering technology support and advice for elderly people, and she never knows what to expect. It may be someone in their eighties wanting to log on to an online seminar, or someone in their sixties struggling to send their first text message.
‘Some can’t even use keyboards, but that’s what we’re there for,’ says Prince, who volunteers for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland. ‘I feel strongly that anybody who isn’t online is disenfranchised from society. If they don’t engage with IT they are in danger of missing out. They can’t run a bank account, get tickets to an event or vote on Strictly. People are terrified by it, but once they take the first step they find they can get over that hump.’
It’s this belief in the importance of digital accessibility for social inclusion that has prompted the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) to provide £65,000 for Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, which has been running the project in the region since 2014. The charity holds drop-in sessions at care homes, Age UK facilities, shops and town centres where anybody can attend and receive support for their tablet, laptop or smartphone. The funding will allow the project to run for another two years, employ an administrator and coordinator, and train volunteers. Troy Young, assistant director of Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland, says they hope to reach 2,000 people in that period.
THE DIGITAL LEAP
One beneficiary of the sessions has been Aileen, 86, who is now able to use her tablet to access a range of services. ‘It’s taken me months to believe that I can’t damage the tablet, so the digital sessions have been as much about confidence using the tablet as they have been about learning what I can achieve by using it,’ she says. ‘YouTube is marvellous because I can watch and enjoy seminars on a range of topics.’
Aileen’s story is one that the MCF and Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland hope will be repeated over the next two years. ‘What we like about this project is that it tackles social isolation from two angles,’ explains David Innes, Chief Executive of the MCF. ‘One is that in this age, where an increasing amount of our day-to-day activity takes place on the internet, there’s a large number of elderly people who struggle with the technology. They can’t manage money, access bus timetables or make GP appointments. It’s a real challenge and narrows their horizons even more.’
The other benefit is that in the process of gaining technology training, participants will have social interaction with the people teaching them. ‘The fact they are taking part in an activity will give them something to look forward to,’ Innes says.
Prince says that several of her regular attendees make a point of coming to sessions in part because of this social aspect. Many Digital Champions are young, and Prince – who is 70 and began volunteering after retiring from further education – admits sometimes she gets mistaken as a participant rather than a volunteer. But she believes that her age gives comfort to attendees, who see that age doesn’t have to be a barrier to new technology.
Having trained as a Digital Champion, Prince thinks it’s vital to go at the right pace and avoid scaring attendees with technical language. ‘It’s important to understand how different people learn,’ she says. ‘You need to realise you are working at somebody else’s level. It depends on the person, their attitude and what they did in their career beforehand. If you’ve never worked with machines, it can be difficult. You start by finding out what they want to use it for and you have to be careful you don’t overwhelm them.’
It’s also important that sessions are enjoyable, and Age UK’s Young says that feedback has been positive. The project has discovered hundreds of older people who were keen to go online but couldn’t find anybody providing the advice they required. ‘They were often worried they’d be made to feel stupid, and some of them have had negative experiences that made them feel out of their depth, but these are relaxed sessions that can be fun,’ he says.
Older people came to Young explaining that they had signed up for evening courses but were being taught about how to use spreadsheets or make presentations. ‘They weren’t interested in learning in such a structured way – they wanted advice and guidance about all the wonderful new technology. We started rolling out engagement sessions so people could have a play with the equipment. People were also coming to us very confused about the range of what was in the market, and they wanted impartial advice. A lot of it is about demystifying and making sure that older people don’t find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.’
Young is intrigued by the potential of using digital technology to provide reminiscence therapy for people with dementia. He hopes that Age UK Leicester Shire & Rutland will soon be able to find volunteers who have experience both with technology and dementia care. ‘I want to take this project to older people who might not use the technology but can still benefit from it,’ he says. ‘There’s been some very interesting stuff around virtual reality and dementia recently, where they use virtual reality to take people back to times they might remember and that have a calming, therapeutic effect.’
As well as allowing the MCF to tackle social exclusion, the location of the project in the East Midlands allows the MCF to ensure masonic funds are evenly distributed.
‘We try to balance our grants, just as the masonic community is spread around the country,’ says Innes, who was previously Chief Executive at the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) and has experience of supporting elderly people.
‘I’ve seen for myself at the RMBI the difference that technology can make,’ he says. ‘Families are far more dispersed than they used to be, and with opportunities such as social media and Skype, you can connect to a family member anywhere in the world. In our masonic care homes, we provide connectivity to all residents, which has enabled older people to stay more in touch with relatives.’
Young is looking forward to continuing his work with Digital Champions like Prince, thanks to the MCF. ‘We were so pleased to get this funding because the grant will keep it going for another two years,’ he says. ‘And that’s important because the technology isn’t going away – we have plenty of demand. We want to make our sessions as inclusive as possible and ensure that all older people will benefit.’
Find out more about the work of Age UK in Leicester Shire & Rutland - click here.