Coronavirus: How to help the rural elderly

By Jennifer Meierhans
BBC News Online

Carol Shoesmith
Image caption,
Carol Shoesmith lives hundreds of miles from her children

People aged over 70 have been told by the government to prepare to self-isolate for potentially a "very long time" to help tackle the spread of coronavirus. But what will life be like for those in the countryside, often far away from their families?

Melplash is a hamlet in west Dorset that is home to about 150 people.

The beautiful setting attracts many retirees and in Melplash and the surrounding villages almost a third of people are elderly.

When Carol Shoesmith, 70, heard the news on Monday that she could be stuck indoors for the long haul, she took the first bus of the day four miles into Bridport to buy supplies.

"I was the only person on the bus and when I got to the shops some of the shelves were bare," she said.

"I tried to book a Tesco delivery but there were no slots until 4 April."

Image caption,
Melplash's idyllic setting attracts many retirees

Trips into Bridport are a social highlight for many of the elderly in the area.

"I have five or six of what I call bus friends. But if we can't go out then it's not just the fact that they won't be able to get food, it's also that they won't see anybody.

"People don't even walk by because we are on an A-road with no pavement."

Mrs Shoesmith says she does not consider herself to be elderly but is concerned for the safety of many of the people in the village who are older than her.

"Most of my friends are older than me. A couple are in their 90s and they're not online, so I do worry for them."

Mrs Shoesmith and her husband moved from Coventry in 2003 as a semi-retirement plan. He chose the location from fond memories of childhood trips to nearby West Bay, where the crime drama series Broadchurch was filmed.

But within 18 months of moving into their idyllic 300-year-old cottage Mr Shoesmith became ill. He died in 2007.

Mrs Shoesmith's three sons all live far away, in Greater Manchester, East Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire. Yet despite this she could not imagine living anywhere else.

"It's a very friendly part of the world, there are about 150 people living in Melplash and I think I know half of them," she said.

On her return from the shops, Mrs Shoesmith received a message. It was from the landlady of the village pub, offering to help.

Clare Pimbley, who took over the Half Moon two years ago, reached out after one of Mrs Shoesmith's sons posted on the Bridport Coronavirus Community Support Facebook page. It is one of many such social media pages to have sprung up over the past few days across the country.

"There's a high percentage of older people here, it's a retirement setting, close to the sea and there are no shops here," said Mrs Pimbley, who said the pub had seen a number of tables cancelled due to coronavirus.

Image source, Clare Pimbley
Image caption,
Clare Pimbley, landlady of the Half Moon Pub, is trying to help old people in the area

"I just wanted to make sure some of the ladies had our number so if they need anything or want to come to us or just want to talk they can.

"We are doing a leaflet drop to the surrounding small villages to let people know that if they are worried about getting hot meals we will be offering a take away service.

"We hope that with enough notice and planning we might even be able to deliver to people who can't."

"I think there's a mood of mindfulness and caution," she said. "We are aware it's changed from 'It's the flu we will be fine' to something we need to take more seriously."

The Bridport Coronavirus Community Support Facebook page was set up by husband and wife Carl and Alex Lewis on Sunday.

Image source, Alex and Carl Lewis
Image caption,
Alex and Carl Lewis have set up a Facebook group to help vulnerable people in the community

"When I saw the the news that people over 70 would have to self-isolate for up to four months I just thought there were so many people who don't have a network of people or don't have anyone at all," Mrs Lewis said.

"I thought we should act now to find out who needs help and who can offer help and get those community links in place for when we need them."

Mr Lewis said his interior flooring business interiors had been offered less work since the coronavirus arrived in the UK. He said he wanted to use any extra time he had to help people.

"The response has been huge," Mrs Lewis said. "It's just exploded. It just goes to show, in the face of this horrible situation that we are heading into, the sheer number of people who want to help."

One of the many offers of help came from Elizabeth Harley, lay preacher at the Chapel in the Garden, in Bridport. She is one of a team of volunteers running a community fridge which distributed four tonnes of food waste to people in need last year.

Image source, Elizabeth Harley
Image caption,
Elizabeth Harley said the community fridge she runs would stay open

"We get a lot of our donations from Waitrose and we are worried that because the shops are being cleared there will be less waste," she said.

"If mass self-isolation goes ahead we are going to have to reduce the hours we are open to the public but not stop the service.

"We help a lot of low income families, people who are unemployed or homeless. If schools close and children are at home then feeding them when they normally have free school dinners is going to be a huge pressure on parents.

"Local businesses are going to be put under immense financial pressure so people might not be able to afford to buy food."

Ms Harley said emergency meetings were being held to co-ordinate extra donations, delivering food to those who needed it and getting a phone number out to those who were not online.

Mrs Shoesmith said she joined the Bridport Coronavirus Community Support Facebook page and found the many offers of help comforting.

"It's a nice feeling that there are people who want to help and it takes something like this to bring out the best in people."

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