When I chose my theme of ‘tackling social isolation and loneliness’ for my year in Office, I never realised how topical it would become. Many thousands of people of all ages across our counties live isolated lives, which detrimentally affects their health and wellbeing. I had planned to shine a spotlight on the organisations working in Cumbria to alleviate loneliness. Then, of course, came Covid-19 and suddenly everyone was not only talking about social isolation but experiencing it for themselves due to the lockdown.
Since taking Office, I have been determined that restrictions would not reduce me to some sort of nightshift where little happens. Covid-19 is the biggest crisis of our generation and requires active service and compassion to recognise and encourage those who are selflessly supporting their fellow Cumbrians.
I have therefore learned to “zoom” around Cumbria, attending meetings with charities and organisation without the usual hazards of slow roads or sheep on the track. I have been able to join church services at the Cathedral in Carlisle and still dash virtually across 30 miles to Workington in time for Mass, thanks to livestreaming services. Unable to visit, I have instead set up a Facebook page and learned to make videos for the Police and various emergency services to show appreciation for their frontline efforts. I have enjoyed being the guest on local radio stations and have deliberately included hospital radio, so I could thank NHS workers whilst acknowledging the important role of radio in bringing together patients and their loved ones during lockdown.
I have been greatly impressed with the creativity and can-do mentality with which so many groups are adapting their ways of operating. One of my favourite events to date has been attending Virtual Guide Camp, which brought over 500 families together across Cumbria for a series of fun activities and campfire singing. For this I was asked to make a video, which had me digging out my tin cup, welly sticks and old camp badges.
One of my greatest privileges is to participate in a newly formed resilience group where local authorities, Police, NHS and Third Sector groups are collaborating so well to try to ensure that no one is left unsupported. Their deep sense of care is inspiring, as is the proactivity of my local community foundation in responding to emerging needs. I have listened and learned so much from charities and voluntary groups working hard to support the vulnerable, whilst isolating themselves. Contact with charities has led me to visit places none of my predecessors have been. Video meetings take place in the quietest corners of people’s houses. I have sat ‘virtually’ under cabin beds, next to mop buckets and in spare rooms to discuss challenges and innovative responses. Not everyone however is IT expert and I have been humbled by the appreciation shown by the tiny organisations when I phone and write letters. The Office of High Sheriff makes a big difference at such times.
As to my theme of tackling social isolation, with crisis comes opportunity. If we can help community groups to harness some of the goodwill created by the army of new volunteers and if we can build on the collaboration within communities established during lockdown, then I’m optimistic that fewer people will be or feel lonely in the future