RESIDENTS of a North-East care home chain have been building relationships with BT employees in a project tackling loneliness – a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Marton Care Home residents, including those in Darlington’s Grosvenor Park Care Home, have been receiving weekly phone calls from volunteers at BT’s Gosforth site in a bid to tackle loneliness.

The project began before the pandemic, where BT ran a pilot with Age UK and call centre staff were partnered with an elderly person to call once a week. When Covid-19 hit, the team decided to partner with care homes which restricted guests ahead of lockdown.

The Northern Echo: Pat Cooper, resident at Grosvenor Park Care Home, opening the craft box from Ms WilsonPat Cooper, resident at Grosvenor Park Care Home, opening the craft box from Ms Wilson

The scheme was spearheaded by employee Chris Reid, 45, who pitched the idea at an internal competition where it won the People’s Choice Award, voted on by staff – 40 of which now volunteer.

He said: “Before lockdown, I would go and pick my son up each week from his mum’s. Whenever I went, an elderly woman would always come to the door across the street. It turned out she had a bit of dementia and thought I was picking her up.

“The next time I picked my son up, I went over to chat with her and ended up helping a little, getting shopping and that sort of thing. It had me thinking, how many other people are like her?

“Because I work for a massive company, I knew there would be something I could do. BT are really concerned about connecting with the community and this is not about making money, it’s about doing something nice for people.”

Also part of the group to pitch the idea, which is now being rolled out across all BT, Plus Net and EE sites, including the Darlington contact centre, was Bev Wilson.

The Northern Echo: Bev Wilson was part of the team to pioneer the project at BTBev Wilson was part of the team to pioneer the project at BT

Ms Wilson calls two residents at Grosvenor Park each week, including 85-year-old Pat Cooper.

Ms Wilson, 55, said: “Speaking with Pat has been just so rewarding. I know I’m going to be grinning throughout the call. It’s important now more than ever because when people go into a care home, they tend to not get a lot of visitors anyway because of their age.

“Now, they’re getting to speak to somebody different. These people are telling us personal things, they’re opening up to us, probably the first people they’ve spoken to about these things in a long time.”

The pair talk about old films and tv shows, which “brings back lovely memories”.

The Northern Echo: Bev Wilson gifted has this personalised craft box made for Pat CooperBev Wilson gifted has this personalised craft box made for Pat Cooper

“Although this is new to me, it’s quite close to home as my mother is currently in a care home with dementia. She’s forgotten who we are, but I always think about her when I’m doing these calls. We’ve heard of residents who hardly left their rooms, prior to receiving our calls. Now there’ll socialise with the other residents, telling them all about our chat.”

Residents who do not have a phone are also given one, and a SIM card, by BT.

Angie Hutchinson, Grosvenor Park Care Home manager, said Ms Cooper is “really enjoying” her calls with Ms Wilson.

She added: “Pat loves the fact that Bev laughs throughout their conversations and this really makes her day.

“Pat tells me that Bev is trying to source a craft making disc for her that she had lost, and Pat is going to make a card and put it onto Facebook with help from staff for Bev to see. It’s amazing to see what a difference the call is making for Pat.”

The BT employee recently had a personalised craft box sent to Ms Cooper after discussing her love of crafts.

Jacky Reed, regional director for Marton care homes, said: “What a difference these calls have made to the residents’ lives.

She said: “It’s made people smile and is helping to support people to help overcome any feelings of loneliness and promote wellbeing.

“The importance is not in the content or the comments, but the feeling these chats are leaving behind after the call finishes, they last for days and help generate conversations with others.”