As part of the University of Bristol’s #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re spotlighting women from the School for Policy Studies who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic by carrying out world-class research.
Dr Angeliki Papadaki, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition, has been Exploring the experiences of community service providers delivering meals to self-isolating adults during COVID-19
1. Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the Meals on Wheels service. Could you tell us a little more?
At the beginning of the first national lockdown, around 1.5 million people were instructed to shield and around 17.7 million adults aged ≥65 years, who were also at increased risk of infection, were instructed to stay at home as much as possible. Many of these people might not have had support from carers and community resources and/or enough money to be able to access food, nor the ability to prepare meals for themselves. So we realised early on the impact that the pandemic and this lockdown would have on these people accessing nutritious meals. But we also realised that this increased demand for meals will have an impact on Meals on Wheels services (local authority services delivering meals to older, vulnerable and housebound individuals). So we worked closely with different partners to explore this important issue.
We just submitted evidence to an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee on ‘COVID-19: Supporting the vulnerable during lockdown’, on why Meals on Wheels should be supported by the Government to ensure the wellbeing of older, vulnerable, and self-isolating adults during lockdown. This was based on our qualitative research findings with service providers (drivers who deliver the meals, service coordinators and managers) in two local authorities in South West England. We found that Meals on Wheels exert important benefits to clients (by conducting welfare checks, encouraging independence and identifying and addressing isolation and loneliness), service providers (via a sense of pride, giving something back and developing reciprocal relationships with clients), but also the wider community (by reducing pressures on carers and the need for residential care). The pandemic brought many challenges, such as an increase in service users, concerns with sourcing food, increased demand on human resources, and uncertainty about how the service will cope in continuous lockdowns. Although the service went above and beyond to continue supporting the most vulnerable, time to interact with clients decreased and there were concerns about clients’ wellbeing because of this. I specifically remember a driver sharing that for some clients of the service, he is the only person they see on any given day. So the importance of the service was even more profound during the national lockdown.
As Meals on Wheels have been facing funding cuts and closures both globally and nationally, these findings are extremely important and provide crucial insights to policy makers for the need to protect, enhance and financially support the continuation of the service, in order to protect the most vulnerable during national lockdowns, and beyond.
2. What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?
During the first few weeks of the first national lockdown, and while we were all adapting to the new restrictions and working from home, I was trying to think of how I can use my skills and research experience to make a difference to people’s lives. I met with a colleague and after a long discussion, he casually suggested I do some reading on Meals on Wheels and establish what the evidence is in this field. I blocked my calendar for two days, read and researched. Within two weeks, we had together a team of four University of Bristol academics, a research associate, two local authorities who agreed to support the project, one national charity to help disseminate the findings, two collaborators from Brown University with expertise in the field and direct links to Meals on Wheels America, a grant application to the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and noted ideas for future research on this important service. I consider it a triumph that we all met under challenging circumstances but discovered we have a common vision and developed this important piece of research to help the most vulnerable.
3. What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?
I have often felt that being a woman, and a non-British woman, can be a challenge. In the past, I have had colleagues talk sarcastically about my ideas in public and in front of me. I also find that more males than females ‘are in love with their own voice’ and barely leave time for you to speak during meetings. You have to learn how to be thick-skinned! Although these are challenging situations to be in, I have learnt to overcome it by acknowledging my weaknesses, but also reminding myself of what I’m worth. Nobody is perfect, but we all have our unique skills, strengths and personalities that are valuable in academia. We all need to remember this more often.
4. Which women have inspired you in your career?
I think the first woman who inspired me was my PhD supervisor, who was the most supportive but in her own way inspired my confidence, showing initiative and taking ownership of a project. I cannot pay this forward enough!
A more recent female colleague, and her saying ‘you have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth; use them in this proportion’; showing me that keeping silent and digesting information before you speak does not indicate weakness as many think, but indeed the opposite.
All my official and ‘unofficial’ mentors throughout the years, whose advice helped me look deep into myself, reflect on my strengths and weaknesses, speak out when necessary, and realise that we all have something valuable to offer.
5. What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
To be patient. To keep eyes and ears open as opportunities might arise from literally everywhere. To listen to your gut feeling. That’s it’s fine to not know where you want to go just yet, and that following the flow can also lead you to great things.