Despite the challenges that 2020 has brought with it, some unexpected positives have come out of a life in lockdown.

One such surprise has come for our retired community. Like the rest of the world, local Living Well Groups had to move online for their monthly meetings, with established groups quickly moving to a virtual meet up.

In doing so, Living Well Group creator, our Communities Development Lead Clare Hannaford, had a brainwave: with the whole world adjusting to a largely digital social life, this could be a way to connect with people in harder-to-reach areas or places that did not have a local group.

Now geographical location was no longer a factor, why not create a nation-wide virtual meet up for any retired member of the fire services community, regardless of where in the country they were?

“There are more people on their own this year than ever before, so anything we can do to help alleviate the loneliness epidemic is something we should be absolutely committed to doing,” says Clare. “We don’t want anybody to feel lonely, so this became a question of providing whatever support we can, even if that is in the simplest of ways and the lightest of touches. I contacted a few people I thought might be interested, as well as receiving a few referrals from Psych and Welfare colleagues, just to gauge interest, and before I knew it, I was inundated.”

The group has grown and grown in number, especially since the days have gotten darker and the weather closed in. Clare is regularly joined by guest speakers from within the Charity to host three sessions each week: a mobility session, a wellbeing workshop, and a general chat, always with the same attitude: there was no commitment to come back, come for as long as you feel comfortable, and no one should feel pressured to talk if they didn’t want to.

To Clare’s surprise, she is now regularly joined by up to 20 people for each session, who log on from all over the UK.

“It’s nice to feel you’re not on your own, and the group provides a community of which you’re legitimately a part: the fire and rescue services,” says Clare. “All the people you see on your screen in front of you are all also part of that community. Whether you were an operational firefighter, someone in Control, the partner of someone in the fire service, or you cleaned the appliances, no matter how long ago you left, you’re all a part of this community and you all belong. That sense of belonging somewhere is so important, having a feeling of your place in this world.”

One couple who are regular faces on the Living Well Group Zoom calls are retired Luton firefighter Les William and his wife, Wendy, who retired down to Devon. Since retiring, Les has struggled with memories of incidents he attended, and what with the restrictions on their life imposed by lockdown, felt particularly down in September.

“He said to me, one day I’m a firefighter helping people, and today I’m a nobody,” says Wendy. “He got extremely low and spoke to his GP. But then we were asked if we’d like to join the Zoom calls, having been to a few in person in Devon, so we went along. I began to see such a change in Les. He’s less introverted than he’d become and we’ve gotten more comfortable talking to people, even though they’re all spread across the country. You get friendly because you see each other regularly, and while they may not be from the same area, you’re with people who understand, like that community is still there for you, getting chatting about the old days and shouts they’ve been on.”

“Both of us have spent time at Harcombe House over the years, but this is another branch of the Charity’s care. The group has been our main social interaction throughout the year, so being able to have a laugh and a chat means such a lot to us.”

Pete Blackwell spent 20 years at Knightsbridge Fire Station in London before retiring in 1984. He and his wife, Jean, were invited to join the groups after both spending time at Marine Court for various reasons over the years.

“We both really enjoy the group,” says Pete. “We’d been locked down since March, so when we were invited to join we thought it would be nice to talk to others and do a bit of exercise. We love the chats in the afternoon and the exercise sessions are particularly good. I struggle with my hips and back, so these have helped us fill the gap left by being unable to go to the gym or swimming.

“The group offers company, as well as being informative. I’m coming up to 75 and my wife is three years younger, but I left the fire service over 30 years ago, so it’s nice to be surrounded by people with who you have things in common, talking about some of the old things and how much has changed today. The Charity has done wonders for me; when I arrived at Marine Court I was walking with two sticks and I left without any. The Living Well Groups are an extension of that care, which is all the same: the care for the fire community.”

Retired Merseyside firefighter Mick Lilley was invited to the group after seeking a course of telephone counselling with our Psychological Services team. Mick’s wife, Sue, passed away this January after an 18-month battle with leukaemia. Shortly after she died, the country went into lockdown and Mick found himself cut off from all his previous social interaction. Then a worry with his heart in September took even further toll on his mental health.

“I’ve always been used to being with lots of people, and I suddenly found myself at home on my own and then really not very well, so I was pretty much at rock bottom in September,” says Mick. “I was offered telephone counselling, and was also asked if I’d like to join the Zoom retirement group. At first I was a bit sceptical of how much I’d find to say to people I didn’t know; I think during my first call all I said was my name and that I’d spent 14 years at Merseyside! But then I started to relax and got more and more involved, now my diary is full of all the different appointments we have each week, and I look forward to meeting people I now consider my friends.”

“I actually really like that it’s a national spread of people; it’s reassuring because from a psychological point of view, it makes the world feel that bit bigger. For the last year, my little world has mainly been just me by myself, and when you’re enclosed at home, you forget the world is carrying on. But now each week I talk to people in Scotland, Essex, Devon etc, and I do feel uplifted. It’s been great for me.

“The mobility workshops are especially great, helping me increase my exercise after my heart issues. Plus doing it sitting at your computer with loads of other people, it feels like a classroom almost, where you get the social chat before and after, and then it’s like being at a gym session. And the workshops are so enlightening; I’d never even heard of mindfulness, but it was great. Some of these things in life, like sleep or meditation or whatever, you have a bit of an idea, but you need someone to explain to you just what you can do with them that will benefit you.

“I just can’t praise the whole situation enough. I did fundraising for the Charity during my career – or the Ben Fund as it was then – and you don’t think for a minute that you’ll be benefitting from it yourself at some later stage in life! But that’s where I am now. It would be great if we could attract more people, because I think there must be hundreds who, like me, didn’t realise just how much they could benefit from getting involved. All those people are still connected to the fire service and may be struggling, so I’d encourage them to get in touch.”

The group will start up again in January, so if you think you could benefit from trying out our virtual Living Well Group, get in touch with Clare Hannaford. There’s no limit to the number of attendees, as Clare can always put on more sessions, and there is no commitment to attend regularly or every session. And if you’re concerned about technology, Clare invites everyone to do a practice run with her before the group goes live. So if you think you could benefit from the social interaction of our Living Well Groups, get in touch. Contact Clare on and she will be in touch in the New Year.

In the meantime, you may also like to browse our library of health and wellbeing resources or if you need any support, you can find full details of our Christmas opening times here.