Taking the strain

Taking the strain


A service for older people in Scotland has expanded its remit to provide practical help around the home


Mark Gould





It is one of those infuriating situations mocked in Daily Mail leader columns. The home help is efficient and caring but is barred from climbing a stepladder to clean an elderly woman’s windows because of ‘health and safety’. Likewise, turning a mattress or changing a light bulb.


Step forward Food Train. The charity already runs in excess of 13,000 grocery errands for 500 elderly, housebound and disabled customers across thousands of square miles of rural south-west Scotland, for which it won a Guardian Charity Award in 2004. Now it is branching out with Food Train Extra.


‘You have situations where home helps are not allowed to do certain things, like changing a bulb, bringing in coal. But there are still many older people who rely on solid fuel for heating, or need to get down on their knees to defrost a freezer,’ says chief executive Michelle McCrindle. ‘Window cleaners will do outside windows but they won’t do inside. We have one customer who hadn’t had the inside of her windows cleaned for four years.’


So a Food Train Extra van, packed with tools, cleaning kits, stepladders and household consumables, such as light bulbs and fuses, is doing the rounds and calling on 80 Food Train regulars. So far, two of its six branches are offering the scheme but it aims to make it available in all six within 12 months.


The pilot project offers seven services: a smoke alarm check, light bulb check, postal or stationery services, spectacle repair, fridge/freezer check, inside window cleaning, and a general home safety check that examines locks on doors and windows and makes sure that rugs and stair carpets are not trip hazards. The Food Train Extra volunteers also do a bit of rubbish shifting and shed clearing.


Customers pay a small fee to cover costs and a Food Train Extra volunteer spends about an hour with them. ‘As well as checking all these things, you are spending time with people, making sure they are all right, having a cup of tea and a bit of a blether,’ McCrindle explains.


The service is designed to ensure older people maintain their independence and feel as secure and comfortable as they can in their own homes. ‘These people’s needs are ignored by social services because they are seen as fit and active, but if you are 80 you do need extra help with things,’ says McCrindle.


‘Going out and getting the coal might be easy for the able bodied but if you are 80 and fall over outside there is a real danger of fracturing a hip. It’s at that stage that social services start to take notice. We are offering these services as a sort of low-level protection, preventing them reaching that stage, she adds.’


All Food Train Extra volunteers undergo a Disclosure Scotland background check and drivers must be over 25 and have a clean drivers’ licence. Some of the Extra volunteers are recently retired tradesmen, others are interested in DIY and want to be useful. Where they find the smoke alarm defective, for example, the volunteers will contact the local fire brigade, which will arrange a fire safety check and fit a new alarm. Where there are problems with safety or security, volunteers will arrange for a Help the Aged recommended fitter to make repairs, fit safety chains and front door spyholes. And with few opticians making home visits, the volunteers pick up and deliver spectacles for repair.


Robin Richardson, from Annan, who is already a Food Train volunteer, goes out once a month with Food Train Extra: ‘It’s very rewarding. People are thankful for the jobs we do. I put up a set of blinds for a lady in Lockerbie recently, but it’s usually doing the hoovering, general clearing and a bit of a chat. Just keeping in touch, making sure people are OK.’


Food Train was established 12 years ago after a survey of Dumfries pensioners showed that many were struggling with their groceries. The scheme is funded by Dumfries and Galloway council and NHS Dumfries and Galloway. Customers sign up and pay an annual £1 membership fee. They pay volunteers £1 a time to collect shopping lists and return the next day or so with deliveries assembled by cooperating retailers. The service has won a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.


With an aim to expand across Scotland, and to share some of its ideas with the rest of the UK, the project is hosting a one-day conference on reviewing and improving home support services for older people. It clearly has ambitious plans.


· The Quest 4 Quality conference takes place on September 7 at Easterbrook Hall in the grounds of Crichton Hospital and University Campus, Dumfries. For more information go to thefoodtrain.co.uk. Nominations for the Guardian Charity Awards 2007 are now open. To enter go to www.society.guardian.co.uk/voluntarysectorawards