“I think everyone just really needed to laugh.”
And with that enormous understatement, Bairnsdale Regional Health Service Cook Sue Buchanan captured the mood of many Victorians living through a year of COVID lockdowns and ongoing uncertainty.
For those who live alone, or are in other ways isolated from support in the community, the pandemic has been a time of even greater risk and anxiety, a fact not lost on social support workers right across the state.
For Bairnsdale Regional Health Service’s Planned Activity Group (PAG), the lockdowns presented a challenge to be overcome with determination, creativity and just a little weirdness.
Spearheaded by PAG Coordinator Janelle Willmott, during the initial lockdowns last year the team began sending fortnightly letters to each and every client, including activity packs, recipes (and the veggies to make them), colouring sheets and history articles.
When possible, they drop the packs around. Even from the approved physical distance, a face-to-face visit was a lovely disruption for staff and client.
And they got on the phone, and rang every single client, every week.
Despite being redeployed into other areas of the health service, the PAG team made up a roster and each team member set aside one day each week to sit down with a phone and work through the list of 80-plus clients.
“It was our way of maintaining some kind of connection,” Janelle said. “We feel a strong sense of responsibility to our clients, and just because COVID-19 is happening that doesn’t change anything. If anything, the need to stay in touch is even greater.”
“For some of us, these guys were the only people we would talk to all week,” said PAG participant Sandy Dempsey. “They would call just to say hello, to ask how we were doing. Those little chats helped us keep our sanity.”
“We were really cut off,” Denise adds. “We were floundering – out of our depth. A lot of other services just withdrew during lockdown, but the PAG staff fought hard to stay in touch with us. That meant a lot, that there was someone out saying ‘we know you are there.’”
As the pandemic dragged on, the BRHS team found new ways to stay in touch – putting a fun twist on the ubiquitous Zoom platform to bring games and group activities into the client’s living rooms, and, more importantly, into their lives.
For Sue Buchanan, who at the age of 45 had gone to TAFE to get her commercial cookery qualifications so she could combine her love of cooking with her aged and health care services career, the Zoom sessions were an opportunity to bring some fun and laughter to a group of people that needed it.
And so she dived into her costume box at home and emerged as a host of colourful characters to host raucous online cooking sessions, in which actual cooking often took a back seat to just having a good time.
Pierre the French Chef was a favourite, as was Dolly Parton, who dropped by one week to make flapjacks.
“It was certainly chaotic,” Sue remembered. “But everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and that was the point, really.”