Carers Leeds is an independent charity that gives specialist and tailored support, advice, and information to unpaid carers over the age of 16. A carer is an individual who, without payment, provides help and support to a friend, family member, relative, or neighbour who could not manage without their support. This could be due to age, physical or mental health issues, substance misuse, or disability.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carers Leeds has been committed to reducing digital barriers for unpaid carers through their digital inclusion service. Their aims are to reduce social isolation and loneliness by ensuring all carers can confidently access online resources essential to their caring role and own wellbeing.
“I am not only proud to see the progress we’ve made over the last three years, but I am overjoyed with how far our carers have come on their digital journeys. For a lot of unpaid carers, access to online services is a real lifeline, so it’s great to see the positive impacts it’s had on people’s lives. The sense of achievement people get when they overcome barriers they never thought they would initially get past is great to be a part of.”Holly Wilkins, Digital Inclusion Coordinator, Carers Leeds
Taking a person-centred approach to digital inclusion
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carers Leeds identified a large proportion of unpaid carers to be digitally excluded due to a range of barriers including affordability of equipment or internet, lack of confidence, and lack of knowledge or support available from friends or family. With all services closed at this time, the only contact some carers had was with the individual they care for at home. Unpaid caring and digital exclusion are both risk factors for loneliness and isolation, meaning it was paramount their service users were able to engage with online activities, support groups, and online services, to prevent poor outcomes and increased isolation from society.
‘I’m loving trying to learn to use my new tablet. It helps that I have Holly with the patience of a saint! A big fat thank you to everyone at Carers Leeds for what they do.’Carer supported by Carers Leeds
Carers Leeds worked in partnership with 100% Digital Leeds to develop their new digital inclusion service and received funding to purchase IT equipment and recruit Holly, their Digital Inclusion Coordinator, to oversee the project. The team quickly recognised that each carer’s digital needs varied from one another, suggesting the need for holistic and person-centred approaches when it came to offering digital support. Carers Leeds did this by developing a digital assessment tool, which is used to help identify the carer’s goals, motivations, and interests for getting connected. This helps shape their support sessions and enables the impact of the project to be evaluated by comparing confidence, standardised loneliness measures, and experience levels at baseline to the end of support. Their goal has since been to integrate digital throughout their organisation to ensure staff are confident in having positive conversations about going online and can identify carers with digital needs.
Digital support as a means to reducing social isolation and loneliness
Over the past three years the Digital Inclusion Coordinator has carried out various means of digital support to digitally excluded carers. Whilst face-to-face services were closed, Holly posted sim-enabled devices to carers with tailored ‘how to’ guides to suit their needs, and offered one-to-one support to carers remotely, via telephone, video, and TeamViewer. Some devices were set up prior to postage to support carers with additional digital support needs e.g. by changing accessibility settings, downloading apps, and posting accessories such as styluses or keyboards.
Since restrictions have lifted, Holly has offered tailored one-to-one and group digital support sessions to carers in various settings:
- One-to-one home visits.
- One-to-one community visits.
- One-to-one telephone support.
- Group digital cafes.
- Blended digital and non-digital social events.
- Online support groups with a digital focus.
Digital support sessions have always had the focus of reaching the carer’s goals from the initial assessment, and have included supporting carers to:
- Feel more confident using their device.
- Keep in touch with friends and family.
- Use technology to enrich individual hobbies and interests.
- Access essential digital health resources e.g. booking GP appointments and self-managing health conditions.
- Independently and safely use the web to search for information or shop online.
Key learning points
The digital support offered has had a real positive impact on carers. Carers Leeds have found that the ability to offer tailored one-to-one support has made a difference as it ensures carer-centred approaches have been adopted throughout. Consistent and focused digital sessions have increased confidence and momentum, so carers are more likely to continue using online resources independently once support comes to an end. They have found that, amongst carers, one-to-one support has been the most effective way to deliver support, compared to group digital cafes. One of the main barriers of the digital cafes has been that some carers are unable to leave the house for prolonged periods of time to access group sessions due to caring demands.
“Google has been wonderful as I can search for new carpets and gas fires. Carers Leeds gave me a tablet with free internet and helped me with what to do! The tablet opened up new worlds for me and helps me keep in touch with others. Now I use WhatsApp all the time. I love it!”Carer supported by Carers Leeds
Carers Leeds have also recognised the most successful digital support comes from keeping things fun and light-hearted. People are much more likely to engage if they see the immediate benefits of technology. For example, The Digital Inclusion Coordinator has supported carers to use various games apps like Wordle, start their family tree with Ancestry, practise mindfulness with yoga guides and videos, and has supported carers to enjoy personal hobbies such stamp collecting.
Over the past few years, Carers Leeds have put on several events which incorporate blended activities. This has included fun nature walks to popular Leeds parks, incorporating an introduction to digital skills and the use of tablets into the sessions by using apps to identify plants and bird songs on their way. Other digital events have included blended arts and crafts workshops supporting carers to create online scrapbooks using Canva, and coffee and digital games mornings.
Carer supported by Carers Leeds
‘This digital support has been perfect as now I can draw, do something else just for me and it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do something like that.’
Becoming a Digital Health Hub
After working closely with 100% Digital Leeds to secure NHS Health Inequalities Funding Carers Leeds are developing the organisation as a Digital Health Hub. According to the State of Caring Report (2022), carers were more likely to feel that remote monitoring, voice-assisted devices, digital ways of keeping in touch with family, online patient records, and the NHS app made their caring role easier. These findings highlight the potential to adopt digital health-related technology as a means of improving outcomes for carers and is why Carers Leeds is an advocate for digital health as an organisation. Digital health is already incorporated into the digital support on offer at Carers Leeds:
- Support using self-management tools for health conditions such as COPD, diabetes, and mental health.
- Help accessing online health services such as booking GP appointments, ordering prescriptions, and submitting e-consultations.
- Help to confidently search for key health information online and avoid misinformation.
- Support in accessing peer and online support groups relevant to their caring role.
Digital inclusion befriending service
Following the success of the work to date, Carers Leeds have recently been granted funding from Good Things Foundation, enabling them to expand their digital inclusion service with the addition of a voluntary digital inclusion befriending service. The role involves volunteers offering up to twelve one-to-one digital befriending sessions to carers in their homes or in the community, with aims to build confidence using IT equipment, different apps, and digital health services.
This befriending service has been developed to coexist alongside their traditional befriending service as the volunteers adopt shared training, resources, and peer support groups. Carers Leeds have found this has worked well and enables the two befriending services to share knowledge and experience with one another. Some of the main positives of the befriending project so far have been:
- Welcoming and reaching new volunteers from different communities around Leeds to get involved in the role.
- Widening resources and capacity for the organisation to network more and maintain key partnerships around Leeds.
- Increased consistent support sessions for carers.
- Consistent advocacy for digital health offered by volunteers.
Carers Leeds plans to further expand their digital inclusion befriending service over the next year.