Alan: “Your donations and support ensured I wasn’t alone throughout the pandemic”

Alan Swales has joined our online Living Well Groups after supporting us for decades. He says they have helped him with increasing loneliness during the pandemic, as he cared single-handedly for his wife.

Many people in the fire service will recall first hearing about the support we can offer them and their families when they join – but for Alan Swales, he grew up not only knowing about us, but also supporting us from the age of just four.

Now he says, after continuing that support for several decades, he is being helped himself via our online Living Well Groups.

Thanks to your ongoing generosity and donations, we have been able to expand our Living Well Groups so they’re taking place both face-to-face and online, reaching people like Alan, who has to remain close to home as he’s the sole carer for his wife, Sue.

And Alan, who’s a retired firefighter from Cleveland Fire Brigade, says they’ve been a vital support throughout the pandemic, when feelings of loneliness and isolation crept up.

“I don’t profess to be the oldest supporter of our Charity, but I started from when I was four years old during the war time, when my dad was a firefighter and my grandfather before him. That’s 80 years!” Says Alan

“Throughout the war, my father and his station ran weekly Whist Drives and annual ‘Goose Drives’ with 150-plus people. There were always significant donations made to you, and my job at four years old was to hold up and carry round the Trump Card Board for that round of whist!

“My mum also became a cook for the War Time Fire Station, so I grew up spending long periods on the station with the crews and women working in Control at the time.

“I became more involved with increasing years until the 1950s and from then on. We did loads of activities on station, walks and all sorts of things.

“One of my most memorable fundraisers was when I was a young firefighter, in Middlesbrough. My watch and station decided to raise money by holding a fashion show. The local department store (Binns) were contacted and Berketex Fashions got involved, which specialised in wedding outfits. In the end, there were over 200 tickets sold.

“Berketex decided they would exhibit their wedding gowns, but as such, they needed a Bridegroom… Muggings here, as a young fireman, was nominated – for want of a better word! Really, I had no choice. I was dressed in full uniform and everything!

“My wife of course was fully aware and supportive but I failed to tell my parents or the in-laws… safe to say there was utter shock and awe when our photo appeared on the front page in the local rag! We made a lot of money for you, that’s the main thing.”

While Alan hadn’t needed our support himself during his time in the service, he saw first-hand the difference your donations make to people’s lives.

“One of my best friends, who was a firefighter, died of a brain tumour when he was around 40 years old. This fantastic charity supported his children at the time,” he says.

“Then when I was working for Middlesbrough Fire Brigade, one of my colleagues died during a fire, when a wall collapsed. He was also in his 40s and once again you stepped in and supported his family and children. I saw plenty of support throughout my career and what it does.

“You never think you’ll need it, until something happens. I always knew it was there.”

Beside Alan throughout his career and through all the charity fundraising activities was his wife Sue. Sadly, she had a stroke four years ago, and now needs round-the-clock care.

“Sue has no speech at all,” says Alan. “I’m her registered carer and have been since it happened. I was thrown in at the deep end, I hadn’t had any experience of being a carer before that.

“We’ve managed at home luckily, but it’s not easy. I found during lockdown, because my wife has no speech, we had no conversation – so that was hard.”

It was around that time that Alan learned our Living Well Groups, which are social groups in place for our retired community, had gone online – so anyone, no matter their location, could join in.

“Just going online to the Living Well Groups chats and not necessarily speaking, but seeing other people with similar backgrounds, was great,” he explains.

“The ability to meet and chat, albeit online, for a short while is a type of anti-stress therapy. We live in a rural area so there’s no ‘over the garden wall’ chats. Yes, we have lots of friends who rally round, but it was from a distance.

“There are many days where I feel like banging my head on the proverbial brick wall. A minor problem that I quickly dealt with a few years ago now takes on a different perspective, but I’ve found communication is at the heart of our civilisation. It’s not until it becomes difficult that we fully appreciate it. The online groups opened that up again…

“The chat is not a vehicle for me to expound on my problems, but it provides me with that little bit of normality in this current strange life we are all living.

“Meeting faces (friends) who come from the same background and experiences provides that short period of calm and sanity– as the old saying goes, ‘it’s good to chat’. I’ve always said, the fire brigade for me is the best family to have in the world.

“People’s donations and support really did ensure I wasn’t alone throughout the pandemic.”

Alan is now encouraging any other carers or retired fire service personnel to join the groups too.

“You don’t have to say anything, you can just sit and listen if you like. You never know, you may see an old colleague you haven’t seen for years on there!” he says.

“On many occasions, over many years travelling, I have sought assistance in foreign countries by ‘putting my head round the door’ of the nearest fire station, where without any hesitance, I have always been welcomed with open arms.

“Firefighting as a job, I feel, promotes a kinship wherever you are – you’re all facing the same dangers and adversities. This Charity in itself provides, I feel, such kinship in retirement, be it through the online chat sessions, or more involved ‘hands on’ help.

“Since my wife Sue’s stroke, and as her carer, knowing that you are there, at the end of a phone, provides reassurance in the dark hours.”

Alan’s grandson, Karl, recently joined the fire service too – in West Yorkshire – following in the family’s footsteps.

If you’re struggling with your health and wellbeing, we may be able to help you. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or visit the ‘Access Support’ tab in MyFFC.

You can also join our ‘Share Your Story Group in MyFFC to chat to others who have received our support, or enquire about sharing your own story, as well as a group dedicated to our Living Well Groups here, where you can chat to other members, see our calendar of upcoming calls, and direct message our Communities Development Lead, Clare Hannaford, at @ClareHannaford.