British Red Cross volunteer John Cooper helps a woman shop for food in a supermarket after she come home from hospital.

British Red Cross volunteer John Cooper helps a woman go shopping after a hospital stay

British Red Cross volunteer John Cooper tonight features in the second part of BBC Panorama’s Crisis in Care programme. 

Here, John explains how and why he supports people to live independently at home after a hospital stay.

I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly remarkable and, before volunteering for the British Red Cross, I had very little experience of working with vulnerable or older people.

I am a retired engineer and project manager who decided to volunteer because I have always been an active person.

I’m nearly 70 myself now and, though I am retired, it’s always been part of my nature to be doing something so I’ve been a volunteer for the last four years.

I’ve learned a lot in that time but it is certainly a challenge because, when people come out of hospital after an illness or injury, they can sometimes be starting from the beginning.

Red Cross support at home makes it possible to leave hospital

Some people have been in hospital for six days but others have been there for more than six months.

They might have been in hospital for so long that the food in their fridge has gone mouldy and needs to be cleared out and replaced.

In many cases, the first thing I will do is take a person home, where we will assess the situation and then go shopping for the essentials.

It’s easy to forget that, for some people who don’t have someone at home to help look after them, support from the British Red Cross is the only way they could leave hospital.

When you have been in hospital for a period of time, you’re used to someone else waking you up, taking your blood pressure, giving you a cup of tea.

Someone else decides when you eat, when you take your medication.

Then, all of a sudden, someone picks you up and takes you home and now you’re looking after yourself again.

It takes some getting used to.  Some people can become bewildered in their own homes.

Getting your confidence and independence back is a gradual and hard-won process. And, even when you start to feel you’re getting back on top of things, that independence can be fragile.

My role is to help get them back on a level playing field so that they can cope on their own again.

As part of the support at home team, I will visit the person I am supporting up to six times.

I need to see them grow in strength and fitness, and gain confidence in getting out and about.

It all starts with coffee and a chat

The British Red Cross does not provide long-term support. But, by getting people home and helping them to get back on their feet, we help at the start of their journey towards living independently again.

At first, we will have a coffee and a chat about life, the universe and everything. Some people really like to talk but others like to listen.  I try to encourage them to talk and encourage them to think.

I’ll ask about their family and learn about their history.  It’s important that you know what’s important to them.  Where did they work?  Where did they live?

What would you like to do?  What can we do that would make you feel happy and put a smile on your face?

Would you like to go shopping?  Would you like to go out for a day trip?  Do you want to go for a walk or a drive in the car?

Building a personal connection with someone, finding out what makes them tick. Showing them they have been noticed and understood makes a massive difference.

I’ve now been doing this for a few years now so I have a number of places where we can drive and park, and enjoy the scenery.

Most of the time, people are really keen to be able to go out and do their own shopping.

I’ve shown a significant number of people how to use mobility scooters at supermarkets.

From snowdrops to trainspotting: helping people reconnect

There are different types of request too.

Someone might say: “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the snowdrops at the side of the road in the village where I live.” Or “I’d like to go for a walk in the park.”

“I’d like to go for a drive or to the beach.”  “I’d like to go somewhere that brings back good memories.”

One person I supported was a train buff and he enjoyed walking down disused railway tracks.

Helping people to reconnect with the world around them and to feel confident and capable again is as important to their mental wellbeing as it is to their physical health.

I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people to live in their own homes on their own terms. From seeing them come back from an injury that means they can barely walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, to be being back to being able to do everything they could do six months before.

When my work with a person ends, I am able to advise and signpost to services and agencies that may be able to offer them further support.

I don’t believe I am remarkable and I had no experience of this type of work before I started.

But when I think about it, my old job as an engineer and project manager must have helped me.

I had to be a trouble shooter and a people person.

I had to understand people, listen to people, understand what their needs were. And, while I had been used to finding solutions to technical problems, now as a volunteer, I’m helping people to overcome the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

Want to volunteer or need help at home?

Perhaps you too have skills you didn’t realise could be used in this way?

Photo credit: © Rogan Productions