Being lonely has an impact, in fact loneliness has become a public health concern. Research published in the medical journal The Lancet, has found that poor social connections are associated with an increased risk of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, impaired cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. While people can feel lonely at any life stage, older people are particularly at risk. Age Scotland reports that an increase in loneliness can occur because things change, citing life events such as “bereavement, retirement, moving to a new area, illness or children moving away from home”.
Tackling loneliness at community level
Mearns Kirk Helping Hands is a charity based in East Renfrewshire just south of Glasgow that aims to reduce social isolation and loneliness and improve the health and wellbeing of older people in their community. East Renfrewshire has an aging population, with projected estimates of an 27% increase in people aged 75 and, in the decade, up to 2028. The charity’s work is vital in keeping older people connected, helping them make new connections and, through volunteering opportunities, help provide roles where they can use their skills and experience to help others and have a renewed sense of purpose. The charity runs a range of groups and activities: social clubs, activities for people living with dementia and those focussing on wellbeing
Bringing people together socially is an important way to keep older people connected. Groups include a Men’s Breakfast Club, Sporting Memories Group (delivered in Partnership with the Sporting Memories Foundation), Friendship Club and a coffee afternoon called “Blether and Brew”. Two activities are provided specifically for people living with dementia; a Lunch and Social Club for that provides a meal, activities and music for members. While benefitting those attending the club also provides an important period of respite for carers. A more recent addition is Monday Meetups. Monday Meetups is a dementia friendly café with activities, where service users enjoy refreshments and home baking before participating in an activity such as musical bingo or crafts. Wellbeing activities designed to help promote gentle movement have proved popular and include table tennis sessions, strength and balance classes and Tai Chi.
In addition to these groups, the charity also runs a monthly bereavement support group and a befriending service for older people aged 70+, experiencing loneliness and/or isolation, who maybe can no longer get out and about or have lost the confidence to do so. A volunteer befriender visits once a week for an hour or so to provide companionship.
An organisation whose lifeblood is volunteers
The charity has 4 staff members and so would not be able to provide all the activities on offer if it were not for the team of over 100 fantastic volunteers. Those giving up their time freely every week work in a variety of roles including group helper, befriender, driver, cook, Strength and Balance class facilitator and administrator, to name just a few. Their time, energy, enthusiasm, and care for the people who use the services is exemplary.
The services Mearns Kirk Helping Hands provides to an estimated 400 older people per year make a difference. They are a valuable resource for older people in the East Renfrewshire community. These services do not, however, come without a cost. The charity has core costs including the staff team who provide an infrastructure for the charity, overheads for space, heating, and lighting, expenses for volunteer training and travel. The charity has a policy that volunteers should never be out of pocket when they so generously give their time. Other general day to day costs include refreshments and ingredients for breakfasts, lunches, and home baking.
The ongoing challenge of securing funding
Securing funding for these costs has not been easy. The charity’s experience, particularly post-covid world is that competition for grant funding in the Third Sector has been exceptionally high. This is not surprising given extensive range of third sector organisations that are out there in communities often all vying for the same or similar funding pots. These organisations are also increasingly finding that the statutory sector, faced with reduced resources and rising demand, are looking more and more towards the third sector to help provide services to people in our communities. Consequently third sector organisations need additional finance to help manage these increased demands.
Securing external funding, however, doesn’t always help with ongoing costs. Those leading the work to secure essential additional resources at Mearns Kirk Helping Hands have found that the funding, which is available, and for which the charity fits the funding criteria is either to be used for a specific purpose, e.g. to set up a new group or project or can only be used for a certain time, typically between one to three years. While any funding is very welcome, these criteria create challenges. For example, if the charity receives one year of funding to set up a new group or activity, it takes time to establish the group, recruit, train, and support volunteers, establish the existence of the group, generate membership, and evaluate what, if any, difference the group is making to those who attend. It may very well be that by the time the group is established and evaluated, further funding needs to be sought to allow it to continue. The experience in East Renfrewshire area has been that very successful groups and activities, making a significant difference to people in the community have had to come to an end because new additional funding could not be secured.
Funding can also have a significant impact on staff. Often funding is only for a certain period, meaning staff can only be taken on for a fixed period or the fund maximum might only be sufficient to fund a part-time post. In the current financial climate, where people are still faced with a “cost of living” crisis funding that only allows for short term contracts or limited hours means posts are not a sustainable option for people in the longer term. This means there is a risk that staff seek employment elsewhere that provides more hours or increased job security. The impact on the charity is clear – where service users and volunteers do not benefit from continuity in the staff they are dealing with, and the organisation must spend additional time and resources to recruit of replacement staff.
The road to financial sustainability
As an organisation, Mearns Kirk Helping Hands is very aware that it can’t be solely reliant on grant funding and has put in place measures to ensure that groups and activities are sustainable. This includes asking for a donation from service users for most activities. The charity has also recently established a fundraising committee. In its first year the committee has organised numerous fundraising events. Members of the committee have also taken on sponsored to help raise funds for the charity. For example one member of the committee completed the Glencoe Challenge in the summer of 2023, helping to raise over £2000. The funds raised are classified as unrestricted, meaning that they can be used to cover any costs necessary across the charity. Despite these efforts, at this stage of the charity’s development, it is clear that the financial position is such that it could not continue relying on fundraising efforts alone, meaning the grants the charity receive are essential for it’s survival.
Mearns Kirk Helping Hands has so far managed to “weather the storm” financially, however this work is ongoing. , The Scottish Council for the Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), has found through the Third Sector Tracker that 67% of organisations cited organisational costs as their biggest operational challenge and that rising costs were directly impacting on their ability to deliver services. The current economic challenges being faced by third sector organisation do not appear to be going away any time soon. Mearns Kirk Helping Hands supports the sentiment expressed in the current campaign by SCVO that the third sector is the “Essential Sector”. The charity hopes that the Scottish Government’s Fairer Funding Proposal will help provide greater regulation of the third Sector, increased options for multi-year funding and a move towards ensuring grants awarded are proportionate to ensure third sector staff can be paid at least the living wage.
For as long as it is viable, Mearns Kirk Helping Hands is committed to continue to work to help reduce isolation and loneliness and improve health and wellbeing for older people in their community. The charity is confident that the work of the staff and the volunteers is making a difference in people’s lives.
“Being involved in Mearns Kirk Helping Hands makes all the difference in my life. It adds a sense of belonging from start to finish.”
There’s no better testimony to the charity’s work to reduce loneliness and make an impact.
Mearns Kirk Helping Hands is the known name of Scottish Charity No. SC046646