Paul: “The Living Well Groups offer that bit of escapism when you’re feeling lonely”

Paul Astle, who was a firefighter with South Yorkshire FRS for 18 years, was his wife’s full-time carer for several years. He says spending time on our online Living Well Groups became a break he really needed in the pandemic.

Spending long periods of time indoors throughout the pandemic was incredibly challenging for everyone, but for Paul Astle, it came while he was a full-time carer for his wife, Sue.

However, he says thanks to your donations, he was able to join our virtual Living Well Groups which offered him a break from some of his day-to-day stresses and concerns, and reconnected him to the fire service community he’d always loved.

Paul, who was a wholetime firefighter with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service for 18 years before medically retiring in 1996, has been supported by us in the past at Harcombe House, our centre in Devon. But he says it’s the social contact we’ve helped him establish in recent years that’s proved incredibly beneficial for him.

“I always knew about this fantastic Charity and fundraised for it, says Paul. “Our station used to take part in a week-long gala every year… there was singing, craft stores, 5-a-side football matches and everything like that.

“One of the highlights of it, for me, was the firefighters’ gala. We’d gather on the school playing fields and I’d help out a lot and lead the parade, which was a two mile walk through the town.”

Paul was first supported by us several years ago, following an operation on his knees.

“I had problems with my knees and had an operation,” says Paul. “As part of my recuperation, I visited Harcombe House for a week with my wife at the time and the kids.

“We had one of the little self-contained bungalows and I had physiotherapy every day in the pool. It helped a lot, particularly with techniques I’ve kept since.

“Sadly I still wasn’t able to keep my job as a firefighter from then on, because my knees were so bad.”

Paul’s mobility has been impacted ever since, although he says the exercises he was given at Harcombe House have helped him hugely.

“On a good day, I have one crutch, on a bad day it’s two,” he adds. “If it’s a really bad day and I have to go out, I have a wheelchair or a small electric scooter. It’s just from wear and tear – I’ve got some arthritis and I’ve also got a nerve disease.”

It wasn’t until more recently, around the time of the pandemic, that Paul got in touch with us again – this time after he’d become a full-time carer for his wife, Sue, who is sadly living with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Sue was a senior nursing sister,” says Paul. “We think she started with the early Alzheimer’s around seven years ago. It took two years for her to be fully diagnosed.

“Because of her job, I think she had a lot more inkling as to what was going on than other people would. She wasn’t helping herself because she was trying to fight it herself.

“I was her carer throughout the start of the pandemic, but it got to the point where I couldn’t look after her anymore.

“It’s 24 hours, it never leaves you. I didn’t really find anything helped me switch off to be honest until the Living Well Group calls.”

Paul was told about how we offer regular online sessions with retired members of our fire services community. While they were face-to-face before the pandemic, we moved them online over the last two years so anyone can join, no matter where they live in the UK.

Since then, we’ve continued to offer the virtual calls, while also reintroducing some of our face-to-face ones too.

“I reached out initially to see what help was available,” recalls Paul. “I have a lot of support in the community, through carers support groups and welfare teams, but it was nice to be part of the fire brigade again.

“I do the weekly calls now. I don’t tend to do the physical classes and things like yoga, but I like to go on and have a chat.

“They were great during the pandemic, with loneliness and things like that, it was just a bit of a break. It’s that bit of escapism. No-one judges you, everyone’s supportive. Sue walked in behind me one day and everybody was waving and smiling and saying hello. She didn’t quite know what to make of it, but it was so nice.”

“I’m not one for going out a lot, and if you can’t get out – for example, I can’t go out if it’s raining or icy, because of my knees – to be able to talk to people and see them as well is a big help.”

As part of the calls, Paul has also joined our model-making workshops, run by Models for Heroes.

“No-one judges you, everyone’s supportive”

Paul Astle

Whether you’re a beginner, you’re looking for a new hobby or you’re already a keen model-maker, the sessions offer the chance to try something fun and new, while chatting to like-minded others.

You can find out more about them on MyFFC here.

Paul says: “Most blokes my age will have done a lot of these things when we were little, I don’t think there’d be anyone over 50 who hasn’t made a Spitfire or Hurricane or something like that. It brings it all back.

“They supply everything for you, a kit, glue, cutting tools, a mat to put it on, everything you need. It’s been really good and it’s escapism again.

“They do it once a month and you can build your stuff when you’re online with them or do it in your own time – which we tend to do! You end up talking for a lot of it! Then you show people how you’re getting on at the next meeting.

“The blokes that run it are brilliant, they sit and listen – they understand.”

Paul now hopes, by sharing his story, he’ll encourage others to continue donating to us, to ensure we can continue offering our support to thousands of other beneficiaries every year.

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.