OUR STORY OF LEARNING DURING THE LOCKDOWN

By Dave Tomalin, Chief Executive – Lippy People.

August 2020

Lippy People is a video storytelling charity based in Leeds that contributes to positive social impacts through coaching people to tell and share their unheard stories of lived experience in order to positively affect their personal growth and wider social change. This is achieved by challenging the beneficiaries’ own perceptions, encouraging broader relationship building for them and helping storytellers to identify and meet their own support needs.

We support individuals to lead the design, delivery and sharing of their own high-quality video stories within coaching and partnership-support frameworks that enable them to value their own experience, identify and achieve their personal goals, and encourage those around them to engage and learn through their story.

Our main project prior to lockdown is called ‘Life, Loss, Learning, Legacy’ (4L’s) – a video storytelling project for older bereaved men (many in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s), who meet in peer groups to produce and share video stores that explore the learning and legacies they have taken from their formative life experiences. Most of us try to avoid thinking about loss as a formative life experience but a loss is disruptive and therefore forces change. Dealing with death confronts us to reflect on the learning and legacies we might take from our own lives, as well as from the lives of the people we have lost.

We all cope with a loss differently and it may take a very long time to come to terms with it. This is particularly true for many of the older men we are working with, who are all coping with bereavement as a result of the deaths of their partners, children, parents or friends. They have told us that their bereavements often impact on every aspect of their wellbeing, both physical and mental health. They are often experiencing loneliness, depression and a lack of connectedness. At the beginning of their collaboration with us, they told us they are adversely impacted by societal taboos and expectations about ‘being strong for others/being a man’ when they consider sharing their feelings and experience of death and bereavement. These social norms often inhibit them from reaching out to others or being offered support, due to their lack of visibility.

By the end of February 2020, most of us were aware that the lockdown was coming. That said, it still came as a shock. I personally panicked about not being able to see my children and grandchildren and the potential impacts this might cause. I feared the potential for mass deaths (including my own) and the disruptive impacts this would have on us all. I thought about the people I’d known across my whole life who had died and would not be experiencing this crisis with me. I thought about how the lockdown might affect the hundreds of bereaved older people I’d met over the past couple of years.

So, on the first day of lockdown, we rang every older man we had worked with over the previous year. Most of them told us that they felt anxious about the uncertainty that the lockdown was bringing and their possible ‘impending death’ from Covid-19. Most did not know how they would cope with the lockdown restrictions as most of them were over 70 and many did not have access to the internet nor did they possess the skills, devices or confidence to gain these skills on their own. Some also told us they had no immediate family members or friendship circles to support them during the lockdown. 

During the week that followed, it became clear that for many of these older men the lockdown was amplifying their struggles to cope with life after loss. Their social isolation continually provided lots of uninterrupted time for them to reflect on their losses throughout their lives (in some cases losses that went back 80+ years) and also highlighted their own mortality. Some expressed fears about going outdoors when they would have normally had no qualms in doing so while others told us that their current lockdown reality was not very different from the isolation they normally lived with. Their isolation seemed to be further amplified when many of their support group providers told them that they would be closed or be operating very differently for the foreseeable future, curtailing their social contact even further, possibly for a very, very long time.

The Lippy People team discussed what we were learning from these older men’s changing circumstances. We all felt an overriding responsibility to continue providing support for them. We knew the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ for doing this, we just had to work out the ‘how’.

Before we could commit to anything however, we needed to check that our funding partners were on board with us doing things a little differently to what we had previously agreed with them. Thankfully, we found them all to be supportive and encouraging, and this gave us enormous confidence as we headed into the unknown. One of our funding partners, The Longleigh Foundation, instinctively knew there was a whole range of experience on which to draw and put together regular Zoom forums where all of their grantee leaders could share their ideas and experiences of how they were dealing with their lockdown challenges. This helped us to gain new perspectives and ideas.

With the backing of our partners, and with the learning from the older men, we began to research and internally test the available digital options that we could use to continue coaching groups of older men to tell and share their video stories during the lockdown. We finally settled on Zoom, partly because it could be easily accessed via an app, a web page or a dial-in without the need for the men to register their details or set up an online account. It had screen-record and share facilities which we could use for group filming and editing and was also the most stable platform for hosting video conversations that we tested.

We then invited all of our older storytellers from previous projects to work with us to test and evaluate an online delivery approach. Many of the older men accepted the challenge. We learnt that for the majority of them we would need to develop some training plans and dedicate some team time to help them get into the Zoom room. For those older men without online access, we also needed to source some loan tablets with SIM cards already installed and our partners kindly helped us with this. Together, over a 4-week period, we overcame the men’s access challenges and tested and evaluated the digital delivery approach.

The first time we all met as an online group was a triumphant experience for all of us. We’d done it, we were all on Zoom together. The men talked a lot about their Covid-19 and lockdown experiences and it was so powerful to hear the men’s different approaches to coping with the situation. Some were angry, some resigned; some said it was no different to how they normally lived (not going out and not seeing anyone for weeks on end). Conspiracy theories dominated for a while alongside their ‘daring commando-like adventures’ of going to the shop for a pint of milk. It was clear that this was the first time lots of the men had had a deep conversation in weeks.  The conversations also demonstrated the increasing fears in the older men of venturing outdoors alongside their apparent lack of understanding of the governments’ strategy to deal with the pandemic. Armed with all this knowledge we made the initial decision to commit to the digital group approach until at least the end of 2020. This was a liberating decision, no more Covid-19 ‘in/out’ dilemmas – we had committed ourselves and that was empowering.

Many older men told us that they preferred the digital approach to face-to-face working as it had been very challenging for them to get to groups when their mobility is poor and their medications take hours to kick in.  Over a couple of weeks, we recorded 6 hours of these conversations and together produced 32 lockdown vlogs exploring the men’s differing experiences of lockdown. After all, in the context of the 4L’s, the lockdown was also a loss as well as a formative life experience that we were all living through.

As we refined, retested and agreed on the viability of this new way of working it didn’t take long for some of the older men to request that we move away from coronavirus conversations and back to telling their crafted personal stories of ‘life, loss, learning and legacy’, as we did prior to lockdown. In response, we initially collaborated on 6 new video stories that focussed on their experiences of loss including the comfort that one man had taken from keeping his partner’s ashes on a shelf in his living room to talk to, remembering memories of being involved in a pit disaster in the 1970’s that killed 400 men (a story which the man had not shared in the 50 years since) and reflections of family members who had died before these men were born in war or in the coal mines, and the impacts this had on their lives. This was the point of realisation for us that the delivery testing phase was over and that it was time for us to expand delivery and introduce new groups of older men to the project.

But the project innovation didn’t stop there. Unbeknownst to the 4Ls team some of the older men were Zooming each other in-between sessions and they wanted us to come up with additional ways for them to meet together and share experiences. So, we worked with them to set up a closed Facebook peer support group for encouraging ongoing storytelling conversations, setting up online screening events to encourage wider community story-sharing, and hosting regular Zoom group meetings for existing storytellers to view and discuss the new video stories as they were produced. Without us planning it, we now had an emerging project steering group led by the older men.

Since then, some men have volunteered to co-facilitate the peer group sessions and screening events; others are co-hosting storytelling conversations with new groups of men. Who could have imagined men in their 80’s volunteering for the first time during a societal lockdown? These men have taught us just how important the 4L’s project is for many of them, and for so many different reasons. A common reflection has been that ‘we are not simply reminiscing; we are using our experiences to learn and grow’.

Two months after lockdown, we began two new 6-week video storytelling groups with our partners at MESMAC Yorkshire and the MHA Live Well At Home Schemes in Leeds. The new men are deepening our collective learning by sharing new video stories about how older gay men are dealing with the loss of their partners after 50+ year relationships; the death of a partner during a terrorist attack; and the new life chapter that has opened up for one man following a life-changing stroke. We have also just begun a new group made up of older Black Asian and Minority Ethnic men and the 2020 diary is nearly full of new groups who want to come together and share their experiences in the digital video storytelling space.

Many of the men have identified personal transformations in relation to their coping with loss, not just because they are meeting other older men with similar experiences and stories to them, but because they are starting to connect the dots between their own experiences and learning. Plus, working together to make a difference to the lives of their peers is providing these older men with a foundation for renewal, friendship and hope.

The growing collection of video stories are also being used by local bereavement support providers as sources of learning, inspiration and conversation building, which we all hope will overcome some of the existing hesitations around talking about death and how we cope with loss.

We will formally review the progress we’ve all made together over 2020 towards the end of the year but we have already learnt that ‘attending’ the 4L’s group from home encourages deep sharing and connection. It also widens access to many who struggle to leave their homes. On this basis, we have made a long-term commitment to delivering the 4L’s project through digital platforms, alongside resuming our commitment to face-to-face working when the time is right.

The lockdown has helped the Lippy People team to grow in confidence which is leading us to actively explore new funding, commissioning and partnership opportunities to expand the 4L’s delivery. Our funders and our delivery partners have also encouraged us to not only focus on building new 4L’s video storytelling coaching opportunities for older men but also for people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to whom the 4L’s project might be beneficial following our Covid-19 experiences. To better evidence this benefit, we have been given some additional funds for a new Learning Manager post to begin shaping the 4L’s service scale-up by providing us all with a better understanding of measuring and documenting the impacts that continue to unfold.

It seems counterintuitive to say that we have had many unexpected positive experiences during the lockdown, especially considering the suffering many of us have been experiencing during this same period. But for me, the highlights have been the learning and hope I’ve taken from new stories and the unexpected impacts for the men who have told and listened to them. I certainly didn’t expect to be thinking a life-affirming ‘WOW!’ on a daily basis during the lockdown. Above all, we have learnt that many of the men initially joined groups ‘just to listen’ and over a short period of time during the lockdown, they have not only discovered their voices but also the value that their experience can have on their own lives and on the lives of others.

You can view some of the stories in the growing ‘Life, Loss, Learning, Legacy’ story bank, by clicking here