First Connect scheme provides a lifeline to older residents

Sam Cunningham, First Connect coordinator for Larne, Carrick and Newtownabbey. INLT 15-607-CON
Sam Cunningham, First Connect coordinator for Larne, Carrick and Newtownabbey. INLT 15-607-CON

This week, as part of the Times campaign with Age NI to increase benefit uptake for older people, we’ll explain about the First Connect service which provides emotional and practical support at difficult times in a person’s life.

The service promotes choice and access to new opportunities and services that may enhance the health and wellbeing of older people and supports them to remain independent, active and in their own homes and communities.

Sam Cunningham is the First Connect coordinator for older people in the boroughs of Larne, Carrick and Newtownabbey. Sam tells us what can be expected from a First Connect visit.

“After an initial telephone call, I arrange a home visit. Often times, I visit individuals who find themselves in challenging situations as a result of a relationship breakdown, bereavement or loss of independence due to ill health. A referral can be made from the Age NI advice team, occupational therapists, social care teams as well as self referrals.’

“It’s good to meet people in their own home. We’ll sit and have a chat. This person-centred approach is essential to fostering positive relationships and to build trust. It’s also an opportunity for me to get to know them better in their own surroundings. I find that many older people are more likely to talk openly about complex or hidden issues in a place where they feel comfortable. Older people who receive support to address any underlying issues are more capable of taking control of their own lives. As a result, they’ll benefit from improved emotional and physical health and wellbeing.’

“I often feel a chill in the homes I visit. Perhaps this is because an older person can’t afford to heat their home. Very often this coldness is in the older person’s life. No one calls and no one cares. People tell me, ‘I’m not living, I’m existing!’

“An important part of the First Connect visit is the offer of a free and confidential benefits check. I can make arrangements with the Age NI Advice Service to contact an older person to ensure they’re claiming their rightful benefits. Many people that I visit are missing out on benefits that could help them pay for fuel and food.’

“One of our advice team spoke to a concerned caller who was worried about an older neighbour. I arranged a home visit with the older person and carried out a full assessment. It became apparent that the gentleman had been feeling very isolated and was struggling to get by financially. He was also suffering guilt issues over the death of his brother years earlier. I gave him an opportunity to talk things through.’

“After a second visit, I arranged a benefits check and he was subsequently entitled to Attendance Allowance. He also agreed to visit his GP for a health check, was given a proper diagnosis about health issues and is now on the correct medication. A care assessment was also arranged. I accompanied the social worker which made the older person feel more relaxed. As a result, his carers come in twice daily. He also has links to a local group and someone often calls by until he feels ready to attend. With this regular company, he has taken an interest in himself again and is beginning to enjoy life.’

“Isolation is major concern for the older people I visit. Many tell me that the TV is their main source of company. To combat this, I’ll tell them about the Age NI Befriending service and about groups in their local area that offer a range of activities to reduce social isolation. Many older people who join local groups have a good network of friends and, despite having to deal with everyday issues, they enjoy a good quality of life. There are groups throughout the Larne, Carrick and Newtownabbey areas that are making a positive difference to the lives of people in later life.’

“Everyone I meet is different. Some simply don’t enjoy the company of others and others may not have seen another person for days but would like some company. However, all of them enjoyed life once. Perhaps, due to the death of a long term partner or a decline in health, their life was turned upside down and they struggled to cope. I’m here to provide support, a listening ear and to offer them a chance to work through the pain so they can look forward to living again.

To arrange a visit or to refer someone to the First Connect service, please contact Sam on 0797 138 9488 or email