Changing services in the face of Covid-19 | Widnes and Runcorn Cancer Support Group | Guest Post

18 August 2020 - by David Allen

The Widnes and Runcorn Cancer Support Group is a small yet well-established local charity offering psychological and emotional support to those living within the borough of Halton, whose lives have been touched by cancer. Like many support services, in light of the global pandemic of COVID-19, they were forced to rethink their services in order to continue to offer support to those in need. We spoke to the team to find out more about the changes they have made in recent months…

“Under normal circumstances our Widnes based Centre is open every weekday between 10am and 3pm.  We have a dedicated staff team of seven, as well as regular volunteers who help with the daily running of The Centre. We offer a wide range of services including peer support groups, art therapy, holistic therapies and face-to-face counselling services.  We also offer a drop-in service where there is always someone available for a cuppa and a chat.

When the global pandemic hit in March 2020, the team were forced overnight to re-evaluate and completely overhaul how to deliver our services.  The Centre closed its doors and staff were required to work from home. No longer could we welcome those in need of support into our premises. Gone were our support groups and face-to-face counselling sessions.  We had to find and develop new ways to working that would fit in with the strange new “normal” that we were living in, while meeting the needs of those who required our support. We had to devise new ways of reaching out to the residents of Halton and ensure that people were aware that we were still operating and providing vital support services. 

Living with a cancer diagnosis, together with the impact and side effects of cancer treatments can be isolating at the best of times, but it quickly became apparent that isolation and loneliness were going to become even more of an issue for many of our service users.  Many cancer treatments can lead to immunocompromise and so, under government guidelines, a large number of them were required to shield or self-isolate to protect themselves from the effects of covid-19 infection.  

So, what are we offering now?  

We knew that we had to look for new ways of engaging with our service users to make sure that we didn’t lose the connections that had already been made, but more importantly to make sure nobody felt unsupported.  We were able to divert telephone lines into the homes of our staff, so they could receive incoming calls from the centre.  This was vital as it is now the first point of contact for anyone seeking support and enquiring about the services we offer. This also enabled our staff to begin the process of reaching out by telephone to everyone who was currently registered with The Centre, including registered service users who haven’t visited the Centre in a while.  

We also have a number of our volunteers working as “Centre Champions”. The champions have been tasked with telephoning service users on a weekly/fortnightly basis, who have requested regular check-in calls.  The champions keep in close contact with a member of staff to update them and pass on any concerns.  

Our face to face counselling services have been severely impacted because of COVID-19. Any service users who were booked in for face-to-face sessions prior to lockdown, have been offered the opportunity to have some telephone sessions until we can resume face-to-face sessions, but there has understandably been less take up. To try and address this we have recently been able to offer counselling sessions via internet-based services, which allows for some face to face contact.

For a long time prior to COVID-19 our Facebook page has been well utilised as a way of communicating information about The Centre, as well as sharing and promoting information about other local and national services which may be of interest to our service users.  Immediately after lockdown, we set up additional ‘closed & private’ Facebook pages. Firstly, a Peer Support group which allows registered service users to support each other. This page is updated on a daily basis and focuses on “mental wellbeing” and “feel good” aspects. Secondly, a craft and activity group which has quiz posts, “how-to” posts, “guess the item” photo posts and lots of other activity posts.  The idea of this group was to try and readdress the balance a little for not being able to hold our usual social and activity groups at The Centre, whilst giving service users some ideas to keep themselves occupied during the lockdown.  Both pages have proved very popular.

We have recently started to offer a weekly Zoom meeting for our registered service users to meet together socially. Initially take-up was low but this is increasing each week and everyone seems to enjoy being able to see one another while they are chatting.  We are intending to continue with these meetings and hopefully build on their popularity going forward.

Our website has been updated to reflect COVID-19. We now have a webchat facility that can be accessed from the homepage. The webchat is manned between 10am and 3pm Monday to Friday.  We now have an online referral form which is accessed from the website. It can be completed electronically and submitted online. This makes it easier for prospective new service users to access our services quickly.

We have received very positive lovely feedback from our service users, many are grateful that we have been able to maintain some level of support.  However, for an organisation that usually thrives on hugs and cuppas, the lack of human contact is difficult for everyone (including the staff!), but for the time being our new normal must continue.  We hope be able to return to something like our original service in the future but for now we’ll continue to offer the best support we can without putting our service users, volunteers and staff at risk from Covid-19.”

For more information about the Widnes and Runcorn Cancer Support Group, visit their website to contact the team.

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