It is important to look at who you have involved in your response to the pandemic and how you are doing it, write Andrea Petriwskyj and Carrie Hayter.

Who is included in planning and delivering your service’s COVID-19 response?

It’s standard practice to involve people in discussions and decisions about their own care and how you support them while restrictions are in place. But are they involved in your service or organisation’s whole response to COVID and your plans for the coming months?

It goes without saying that consumers are your first and most important port of call as the major stakeholders in decisions about care services. They should always be involved in discussions and decision making, as a matter of course. And that means all consumers, no matter their diagnosis.

Dr Andrea Petriwskyj

Families and friends also need to be considered and included, particularly when your decisions impact their roles and ability to be involved in care. 

What have you done to involve all these people in your COVID response so far?

We have seen lots of examples of services innovating during the pandemic, with new ways to connect and support. Consumers, their families and friends, frontline staff, managers, volunteers, and the broader community can all have a role in this.

Who has been involved in coming up with ideas and new ways of doing things in your service during this time?

It’s not just who you ask

How you engage is just as important as who you engage.

There are lots of people who don’t have the skills, capacity or confidence to respond to surveys, polls or official feedback forms. Not everyone wants to put things in writing and some people find verbal communication difficult.

Similarly, some people are comfortable using technology to participate while others aren’t or don’t have the resources.

What else could you do to build on the momentum of what you’ve done so far to ensure everyone has a voice?

This doesn’t mean you need to be everything to everyone, and especially now when some traditional ways of engaging aren’t possible and there are things you won’t be able to do. But it’s important to understand who you might have missed and what else you could try.

For now, this could be as simple as looking at what resources you already have and leveraging those in different ways. For example, consider your phone, email, newsletter, website that accepts comments, volunteer service, virtual meeting software or wall or windows people can write or draw on. Think creatively.

A number of services have conducted surveys with consumers and families or have asked for their feedback through newsletters, email or posted letters. These can be useful tools to help you check in with people about your response in a crisis situation.

But it’s also important to keep the conversation going so it’s not just a one off. How could you turn it into an ongoing discussion instead of just a question?

It’s what you do with it

Carrie Hayter

It’s not enough to ask people what they think – you also need to be open to changing what you’re doing based on their perspectives. Engagement doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive, but it does need to be meaningful.

What weight has been given to consumers’ perspectives in your decision making? What about the perspectives of consumers’ families and friends?

If the answer is not much – or if you’ve had trouble changing direction to respond to others’ input – it’s time to look more deeply at why that’s the case, and what you might be missing out on.

For some services COVID-19 has changed the way volunteers, consumers, families and the service work together. They have taken the opportunity to build the capacity of their volunteers, work more closely with volunteers and staff to shape how they do their work and increase their discussions with consumers and families. They have moved further on from consultation and service delivery towards greater partnership.  

Engagement is not simply about asking people’s feedback on a decision you’ve made or about asking people once to contribute. It is about ongoing dialogue, collaboration and co-creation. Services have used this time to open ongoing collaborative discussions with consumers, families, and staff about their ideas for the service.

This is about going deeper with your engagement. What opportunities are there for people to discuss ideas collaboratively and be part of making them a reality in your service?

Engagement should be the answer, not the problem

You don’t have to be responsible for providing all the answers on your own. Consumers and their families and friends can be your allies and supporters. This is not the only major crisis that many people in your community – including aged care consumers – have lived through.

Consumers and their families and communities bring a wealth of ideas. They have access to resources, skills and knowledge that can be of very practical help. Your staff members, and especially those on the frontline, are also an important resource. They are particularly helpful because of the relationships they have with consumers and their families as well as their own professional and life experiences.

Services share with us a lot of reasons why they can’t engage more deeply and why the costs and risks are too high. We know that these anxieties are heightened in times of crisis, particularly when people’s health and even lives are threatened.

But we know there is a lot of great work going on out there. We want to hear your experiences, tips, and ideas. We invite you to share them with us to help support your colleagues across the sector to try something new.

See COTA Queensland’s page, where we are regularly adding resources including stories from the industry to help you engage better with consumers.

Dr Andrea Petriwskyj is coordinator of research and community education at Council on the Ageing (COTA) Queensland and Carrie Hayter is the managing director of Carrie Hayter Consulting.

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