Social support delivered differently

Programs that connect and engage older people in social activities

Image: Furry friend Nelly


Social support programs play an important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of older Australians.  They connect and engage older people in social activities that contribute to their emotional, social and physical wellbeing.  It is therefore not surprising that during this time of face-to-face closures and social distancing, providers are responding with new and interesting ways to engage with the people who access their services. The Covid 19 pandemic has required providers across the eastern metropolitan areas of Melbourne to rethink their program model – moving to the world of ‘virtual or phone-based support’ to ensure positive connections and outcomes for clients while maintaining continuity of service.

"Our clients are very appreciative of our calls and you can hear in their voices that they are missing the conversation.  We have a lovely client who attends SSG each week and hardly says a word to our coordinators, when the coordinator rang this client to offer our program they were amazed as they finished 20 mins later and couldn’t believe the client had spoken for so long." Rita Lang, CEO, Bridges

Providers immediately recognised the need to make contact with all clients, and or their carers’.  Priorities focused on identifying those who were likely to be the most vulnerable – people living alone, or those with health conditions, cognitive decline or physical limitations. This involved reviewing current client information in care plans and talking with staff about their knowledge of clients.

Staff connected with clients by phone.  For some, this involved up to 1,000 clients.  These initial conversations sought to provide reassurance about service delivery, check on the person’s wellbeing and to understand their specific support needs, including what was working well and what might be helpful during this period.  Conversations included discussing the arrangements in place to support their usual routines, what is important to the person (and what they enjoy doing) and how/when they would like to connect.

The information gathered was used to adapt each client’s care plans, taking into account their individual needs, preferences and diversity.  Care plans documented support needs, the level of contact preferred, their interests and any referrals to other services for support.

TIP - Good care planning and knowing your clients is critical and helpful during this time. Sarah Yeates, CEO, Caladenia Dementia Care

Delivering differently

Having established the needs of group members, social support providers set about introducing a new delivery model that predominately focused on phone, online or drop off activities aligned with social distancing practices.  Providers across the eastern region have generously shared their ideas and activities with other providers, working together to ensure that clients are supported in the best possible way during this period.   Here are just some of the great ideas that are being rolled out:

“I am enjoying keeping in touch with you, the phone calls are such fun.  When can you send me the next newsletter?  I’ve already done the quizzes and crossword and just finished the bookmark!  I am missing the group; it is the highlight on my week but at least I know we can stay in touch.  Could you please drop off a jigsaw next time – I’ve finished all my ones at home.” Client – Killara House

Supported home based activities for one or more 

  • DIY herb garden kits - seeds, container, instructions provided to clients
  • DIY family tree project
  • DIY memories box filled with items of interest, keepsakes etc to share at later date
  • Knitting group/s- with wool provided
  • Movie group/s- including conference calls to discuss movie
  • Recipe sharing for inclusion in newsletter and production of recipe books to share
  • Individually curated music playlists, letters, postcards or photos
  • Art activities – with small canvases/paint kit, pens, pencils, drawing pads and colouring books provided

Interactive newsletters in print, online or sent via email that include puzzle activities such as word searches and crosswords, news and information and client interviews & stories

Partnering with local schools for Zoom chats and Pen Pal programs, working with the local supermarket to deliver essential items and establishing a phone buddy system between clients

"The Killara House Team, EACH are continuing to deliver care packs to clients and last week's batch came with a surprise visit from a furry friend Nelly, who is advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community! Clients enjoyed Nelly's visit so much; we've decided to bring him on deliveries regularly." 🐶 Sally Rohrich, Facilitator, Killara House, EACH

Providing access to information and community including shopping, medication, care packages deliveries; support with telehealth for medical appointments; food services program including shopping; linking to translated material; tips and ideas for staying well and home exercises activities and chats

Online activities such as phone and or video calls/conferencing (Facetime/WhatsApp/ Skype/Zoom/House Party) with group members, virtual karaoke, cards and board games where each person sets up same board game and takes turns to play; virtual galleries and armchair travel

Use of social media platforms including establishing Facebook pages (for clients and volunteers), YouTube videos or playlists for clients to access to share jokes, tips, quote of the day, highlight support available or new initiatives

Monitoring and evaluating the impacts

While the changes to programs have generally been embraced by clients and staff, service providers acknowledge the need to continue to work with clients and their carers to understand the impact of the changes and to respond appropriately.  Sarah Yeates, CEO at Caladenia Dementia Care recently surveyed 75 carers of people living with dementia who use their service.  Of the 30% who responded, 88.6% of carers reported a decline in their ability to provide care to the person living with dementia and 80% reported a deterioration in the wellbeing of the person they cared for after programs were suspended.  These findings clearly reflect the impact of the loss and value of face-to-face service for vulnerable community members.  Additionally, the findings continue to challenge service providers to support remote connections through innovation and creativity and consistent monitoring, review and evaluation.

Key learnings

Providers and clients are both eager to return to face-to-face contact and are now thinking about what aspects of the current programs might continue into the future.  As providers reflect on their approach, they continue to seek new and interesting ways to engage clients by drawing on their experiences and learnings to date.  These include:

  • Know your clients – who they are, what supports they have in place (family/friends/neighbours/carers), and what is important to them
  • Know what communication approach best suits each client
  • Connecting with clients provides a sense of calm, reduces fear and provides confidence that providers are here to support clients through this time
  • Document what you are doing
  • Understand what’s happening in your local community – what other providers are doing, services available and referral processes for accessing other services (including via My Aged Care)
  • Look for partnership opportunities with other providers to coordinate care

[Source: Lisa Dean, Regional Advisor, Diversity & Wellness, Eastern Sector Development Team, ]