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Interview with BGS Special Medal Winner, Susan Stefiuk

Marina Mello, BGS Communications Manager spoke to Susan Stefiuk, who was recently awarded the BGS Special Medal for  ‘work to promote the health and wellbeing of older people throughout society’. Susan is a Senior Coordinator for Well Being and Friendship Services at Age UK. She has been the lead in developing Age UK’s well-being services for over seven years. During that time she developed a wide variety of new services and activities to keep older people fit and active.

 Last year older people in Shropshire took part in over 5,000 activities that Susan had organised and coordinated. We asked her about her role at Age UK. She said:

I am the Wellbeing and Friendship Services Senior Coordinator at Age UK in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin - part of a team with three co-ordinators and an administrative assistant, and we have a central office in Shrewsbury. Wellbeing and Friendship Services are made up of living well activities such as dance, fitness classes and social activities. There are a variety of dance classes available, including Zumba Gold and Latin Steps, which is a mix of Cha Cha Cha, Salsa - anything that is a bit Latin. From a social perspective we do afternoon teas, occasional tea dances, lunch clubs, which are very popular, and reading groups. We also do walking football, seated exercise and walking groups. An important aspect of my role is managing the volunteers and instructors. I take one of the exercise classes myself, once a week, and I will often go and help run one of the afternoon teas. I will also go to one of the other sessions each week, for instance the reading group. Living well is only part of the overall service, we also do a befriending service where we have visitors that visit older people who are isolated in their own homes. 

We also do a telephone buddy service where we have volunteers that come into the office on a Monday and ring people that have generally been on their own all weekend and probably not spoken to anyone, maybe not even all week. 

My general day will involve taking referrals and helping out volunteers but every day is different!   

We have probably around 180 to190 volunteers in the Shrewsbury area. We have more women volunteers than men but both are equally important. Older men can find it challenging to go out and socialise on their own, we find that activities like walking football can be particularly helpful.

In rural communities like ours, a big challenge for older people is public transport. We don’t have buses on a Sunday and for people living on their own the weekend is the loneliest time. They want to go out on a Sunday and they can’t. We have tried to hold events on a Sunday to address the issue but the lack of transport hampers this. 

Our Monday phone calls help, and of course also function as a welfare check. If someone isn’t answering the phone, who usually does, we will pursue it and make sure they are okay by contacting a member of the family or someone else in the area.   

Asked what achievement she was most proud of, Susan responded: It has been building up the service. We started off with some exercise classes, and then we added a book group and it has just grown from there.

The feedback has been incredibly positive. One retired lady who regularly uses our services said, “This group is a lifeline for me. If I didn’t come here I wouldn’t hear laughter”. Often when people leave work they leave their colleagues and their regular social circles. We can help address this.

We then asked her what the main areas of concern are for older people living in the community. She said:  Mobility and, of course, the growing number of older people with dementia. Although dementia support is a more specialist service we do cater to older people in the early stages of dementia. They come to our activities and we have befrienders coming in. Sometimes a family member comes with them but often they come alone while they are still able. Another big issue is loneliness and isolation which can lead to a whole raft of other problems, including depression. 

We are currently developing a short term befriending service where volunteers go into older people’s homes and have a coffee or play chess. Our short term befrienders can then take them out to an exercise class or social event. Many of the older people we see have lost their confidence and once they get it back they can go on their own. Quite often it is just a matter of getting them through the door that first time.

A message to BGS members

I would encourage BGS members to refer older people they are treating to our service, or an equivalent Age UK service in their area. They can find out more about what is available from the Age UK website. We try to put as much information as we can in doctors surgeries so hopefully patients can find out more there as well. Please encourage your patients to get in touch, especially if they have fitness requirements or social issues we can address. We have Age UK care navigators based in GP surgeries that are also there to help.  

Asked what being awarded the BGS Special Medal meant to her, Susan said, ‘The voluntary sector are under constant pressure from funding cuts so winning this award is a wonderful recognition of the work we do in the community’.

Marina Mello
BGS Communications Manager

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