Virtual Village East
Virtual Village East is the modern equivalent of the villages of old: a local neighbourhood of likeminded people who look out for one another, help each other out, get together regularly, and enjoy companionship, friendship and fun.
Most people would prefer to remain living in their own communities as they get older. Virtual Village East enables members to stay connected and to age well in their own homes. It offers a range of face-to-face and online activities to help older people remain within their own community.
Virtual Villages connect members to a wide array of practical support services and social connections that enable older adults to enjoy a rich, independent and healthy quality of life when they choose to age in their homes and communities.
Virtual Village East was initiated by Howick Baptist Healthcare Senior Living (HBH), a Faith based, not-for-profit organisation that provides high-level care for older people. Virtual Village East was a way for HBH to extend their work beyond the walls of traditional senior care. The CEO of HBH, Bonnie Robinson, is deeply committed to the wellbeing of older people and wanted to create a service that provides the social and friendship connection of a Rest Home, without having to go there – a village without walls.
Bonnie and her Executive Assistant Lee Warmington began by distributing a survey to local GPs, libraries and other community spaces frequented by older people. Over a three month period 284 people responded to the survey. Most were aged 60 to 79 years, retired and living alone or with a spouse or partner in Howick and the surrounding suburbs. Most were actively involved in a range of physical, social and educational activities and had a healthy level of contact with others, either in person or phone.
Their primary concern was that as they aged and lost access to their own cars, their lives would radically change. Overall, the feedback demonstrated strong support for the Virtual Village initiative, which gave Bonnie and Lee confidence to form an establishment group to guide the programme.
“Initially we had an establishment group who guided the programme for the first year, who were ‘our board’ as such. Many of them are still our programme volunteers and I often bounce ideas off them.” Lee Warmington, Coordinator, Virtual Village East.
1. Find out what the real need is
“We started with a survey and were surprised at the results. You think you know until you ask. I didn’t realise that the prospect of losing the ability to drive would be the number one issue for older people.” Lee Warmington, Coordinator, Virtual Village East.
2. Make sure its lead by people who are really passionate about older people
3. Engage a dedicated team to guide your programme
4. Create relationships with stakeholders and keep them close
“We started off by having a meeting with all the local community groups we knew who work with older adults. Many of them were sceptical and felt that we would be competing with them, but soon realised we need to work together. We’ve continued to stay connected and now we are able to work with some of them.” Lee Warmington, Coordinator, Virtual Village East.
Membership to the Virtual Village is free. When attending their first Virtual Village activity, participants are entered into a membership database so they can be kept up-to-date with future activities. Currently the database holds 170 people, about 80 of whom are active.
Howick - East Auckland
Most of the Virtual Village East members live in Howick and surrounding suburbs. Howick is an eastern seaside suburb of Auckland with a population of over 11,000. It is one of the more affluent suburbs of East Auckland. Nearly 70% of residents are European/Pākehā and over 14% are aged 65 or over. The local Iwi is the Ngāi Tai of Tainui decent and 6.2% of the population are Māori .
Many older adults who reside in Howick have raised their families locally and are strongly connected to the place and their history in it. Within Howick there are a range of well-used recreation facilities and community groups, which provide services specifically for older people.
What's on offer
Starting with the issue of greatest concern, Lee invited public and private transport providers who provide services for older adults to a morning information session. Providers gave presentations about their service, focusing on how they could be accessed by older adults (discounts, accessibility etc).
Providers were then available one-on-one assistance to the 70 older people in attendance, supporting with questions and practical tasks such as accessing discount cards.
With the help of students from local college Saint Kentigern’s, Virtual Village East hosts technology sessions where participants can receive support with their technology. This could be anything from how to use a phone or Ipad, how to use apps like Facebook or YouTube, or how to get audio books out from the library. 30 older adults participated in the first session, which has been followed up with weekly book in sessions.
In person and virtual activities are hosted based on engagement and feedback from participants. Activities include:
- A monthly coffee catch-up hosted by Lee in a wheelchair friendly venue with around 25 people attending every session.
- Regular zoom catch ups, led by volunteers during lockdown.
- A weekly walking group, which meets at the local park and share coffee afterwards.
- A regular speaker series on topics of interests to members.
- Short courses on topics sparked by member requests, such as mindfulness and exercise programmes for beginners.
- A program called Simple Summer Dishes, where members are invited to a local church kitchen to demonstrate cooking their favourite summer dish. The group then eat together afterwards
- Quarterly bus trips to places of cultural and scenic interest.
Home and garden help
A booklet of reputable, local tradespeople who provide home maintenance was developed and shared with Virtual Village members. HBH is also considering developing a ‘Neighbour-to-Neighbour’ service, which would link members skilled in home and garden maintenance with members in need of assistance.
A weekly e-newsletter shares information about all activities and events coming up as well as other interesting content, like recipes, exercises and Ted Talks. In all the offerings, Lee’s greatest joy is seeing members grown in confidence.
“One member who was really lonely and struggling started coming to our monthly coffee catch up. The first time she came in, she said ‘I can’t do this’. Now she can’t wait to come and is one of the most chatty in the group.” Lee Warmington, Coordinator, Virtual Village East.
The programme’s greatest challenge has been running online. Typically, older adults have less access to the equipment and know-how of virtual communities. The programme has worked to overcome this by providing coaching and through their technology sessions.
Slow to start
Older adults typically have a greater reluctance to start something new and local Medical Practices have proven to be an important point of contact and ally.
“Those who are truly lonely and isolated are least likely to leave their home. We know that going to their Doctor is one place they will go, so our relationships with local medical practices have been vital to our programme. When a GP recommends us, it’s from someone they trust.” Lee Warmington, Coordinator, Virtual Village East.
Virtual Village East moved entirely online during lockdown and this was much appreciated by members.
“While I miss attending the weekly classes, it has been wonderful to continue with everything at home. The exercise videos, quizzes and recipes are interesting and I look forward to receiving the weekly newsletters. It has really helped during lockdown.” Nidhal Alattar, Virtual Village East member.
Lee works on Virtual Village East around 10-15 hours a week and this, along with marketing support, is funded by HBH Senior Living. This allows enough time for programme organising and oversight but not for follow-up on individual participants, which Lee would dearly love to see.
The programme has also used volunteers in a limited way, such as distributing advertising or running zoom meetings, and a phone tree was very useful during lockdown.
A small fund from the Howick Local Board funded the Virtual Village East website. Driving Miss Daisy support the newsletters and local community centres provide affordable venues. HBH Senior Living is also looking to replicate this project in Auckland West with funding from the Office for Seniors.