Story: Chris Walker

No one likes to think of themselves as vulnerable (as a man, I would say – especially men!), but sometimes you find yourself being categorised, and having to deal with it.

I happen now to fit the ‘vulnerable’ category as I have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and had a heart attack in 2019, so when C19 hit in March I found myself being advised to isolate, by work and family – and treated differently by some people who knew about my health issues.

I found this hard as much of my work involved me being out in the community, and I was especially fond of Walking Football and Walking Rugby, which I’d been helping to support and develop (and play!) for the past 5 years or so, amongst my other community-building work in my role as Community Engagement Manager with Age UK Gloucestershire.

As you can imagine, from March 2020 it was difficult to deliver this work from home and when initially isolating. Luckily our organisation had just made changes that ensured we all could work from home quite effectively.  Our roles changed in response to the situation, but at least colleagues were still connected and could support our communities. We worked with partners and others to get information out to people needing support. Most importantly, we kept working throughout.

Communities themselves were great first responders to the crisis, reaching local neighbourhoods effectively and quickly through their own networks. I was contacted by local tradespeople saying, ‘I’ve been furloughed, but can and will help anyone in our community who needs me in an emergency, if you can let me know if anyone contacts you in this situation?’ and this helped me to connect a few boiler, plumbing, and electrical emergencies to local, furloughed tradespeople.

Above all, I saw how important the social aspect of people coming together was, for everyone. I’d already experienced this in 2019, when Abbeymead Rovers FC Walking Football (my local team) were a huge comfort to me whilst I was in hospital awaiting my heart surgery.  I had messages of support through a team WhatsApp group such as, ‘You’ll be ok mate, you’re in the Stent club now…I had one fitted 8yrs ago and I’m doing fine now’; or offers to talk if I needed to.  Men talking to men about a serious illness…a breakthrough, a revelation! So, in 2020 when we couldn’t play Walking Football during lockdown, we kept our spirits up by sharing stories, quizzes – even the occasional recipe – again through What’s App. As the team chatted, some began exploring ideas of ‘wanting to do more’ for their community. As luck (and my natural networking ability) would have it, I knew a local reablement unit (Wheatridge Court, Gloucester) needed maintenance help to get rooms and facilities ready for hospital discharges – so I put them in touch.  The result? Two sheds painted, patio areas steam-cleaned, and two rooms painted for new guests. It just needed a little brokering: not managing or controlling, just community connection – and that’s what I do, and what I value.

I was going stir crazy by the time lockdown eased, so met with two other team members (socially distanced) in the park, just to kick a ball about and have a chat. After all that inactivity – working from home, with only an hour’s outdoors exercise each day – I could hardly walk afterwards. Team coaches and the Walking Football Association devised a way groups of 6 could train at a distance until we could resume full matches.  Ours was the first club in the country to train in this new way but, as others followed suit, many hundreds of people were back out training and enjoying the banter. For me, just to get out, join in with the fun and banter, and to work on my fitness has kept me sane this year. I’ve also created a ‘tiered-down’ session where people just turn up to play for fitness without competing. That’s my focus for the future with Age UK Gloucestershire – helping people return to the physical world with confidence and helping partners in the community open up indoor spaces safely, because there is no substitute for meeting face to face.