Our Story – from Little Acorns…
In the heart of rural Cheshire, a small group of volunteers who have a passion for vitality in later life, have spent the last 9 years building the charity OPAL Services.
OPAL Services (Older People Active Lives) was born in 2011. Our initial purpose was to manage a number of day services for older people in 5 rural locations, providing one or two days a week support. These services were due to be discontinued by Age Concern so a small group of volunteers successfully campaigned to secure continuing Council funding from Cheshire West and Chester and took over responsibility for providing these services. Our organisation was registered with the Charity Commission and Companies House and a Board of Trustees was formed, supported by a Steering Group which had enabled the new organisation to become established. We were careful in the early days to ensure there was representation on the Board or Steering Group from each of the communities the service ran in. We also forged links with all 5 Parish Councils responsible for these areas.In the beginning, our offer was simply a day service running once a week in Helsby, Kelsall, Tarporley, Tattenhall and two days a week in Malpas.
This service, grew over time into 6 OPAL Clubs which included the newest one in Frodsham, providing a much valued lifeline, getting people out of their houses and connecting with others for a home cooked lunch, a chat and activities. From 2014, having grown in confidence, we started to branch out, recognising the need to diversify the provision of services to suit people’s needs. Recognising that one of the best ways to keep people connected was through the internet, we created OPAL GoOnLine Service in 2014. We saw it as a huge opportunity to prevent isolation and loneliness and to bridge the gap that often opens up when people are less able to drive and living in a rural area, rarely even seeing people passing by. Although internet access among retired people had doubled from 22% in 2003 to 44% in 2013, a staggering 79% of 65-74 year olds had low or no internet skills.
OPAL GoOnLine Service continues to offer older people and their carers opportunities to become more confident and competent in using the various types of communication technology – to keep in touch with family and friends and to make some practical everyday tasks such as shopping and banking easier. This service, unlike the others, is paid for by external funders, who have an interest in the value of the service for older people and their carers. In 2018 a total of 419 people accessed the service, consuming over 800 hours of volunteer support and demonstrating how important OPAL GoOnline is to the people we serve.
In 2016 we added two further services, both funded through “Brightlife“, as part of a national research project considering the significance of social isolation and loneliness for older people. Now included as part of OPAL Branching Out, OPAL New Horizons and OPAL What’s Cooking, successfully operate in Frodsham, Helsby and Farndon. These services aim to bring people together in informal and welcoming settings and offer opportunities for them to become involved in local community activity. Although the Brightlife funding ended in the Summer of 2019 we have been fortunate enough to have received a year’s funding from the Marshes Community Benefit Fund to continue to run these services in Frodsham and Helsby. These services came together and are now known as OPAL Branching Out.
As a charity our philosophy is to provide as much support as possible for those unpaid carers looking after older people in rural areas who may not be able to access OPAL’s services due to their health. By maximising support for carers we want to improve the quality of life for both the carer and cared for. OPAL BreakTime offers respite breaks to those caring for people who may be highly dependant. OPAL Carers Connect brings carers who are relatively new to being a carer together with others in the same situation. As well as providing support to each other, they can also get information and access to other sources of support.
Funding for services has become increasingly scarce and there’s growing competition for all potential funding streams. We couldn’t survive without our volunteers and staff. Much of the work the Trustees do is to support them to provide services that are high quality and as far as possible, individually tailored to suit the older person or their carer. We ask for feedback on our services and act upon any suggestions to ensure they continue to meet people’s needs.
In 2018 Cheshire West Health Care Trust stated that as a percentage of their total population, Cheshire Rural locality has the highest proportion of older people, with 22% of their patients aged 65 and over.
At OPAL Services we recognise that an ageing population is part of a national trend. We are generally living longer and healthier lives, retirement ages are increasing, and younger people are choosing to live in towns and cities, where more affordable housing is available.
During the Covid-19 pandemic much has changed in terms of the services we are able to provide but as a result, the work we do through OPAL Services to connect and reconnect the older generation in rural communities, is becoming ever more vital.