Society is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. Headlines regularly warn about the scale of this modern scourge, from describing how social isolation increases our risk of death, to lamenting Britain’s status as one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.
What command less column inches are the small-scale solutions. There is little consideration of how hyper-local schemes – when funded, publicised and replicated nationally – could tackle loneliness and shift perceptions about the most isolated people in the country.
Not only are the singers at opposing ends of the age spectrum (the youngest is five, the oldest is 90), they are from two of society’s most excluded groups: the adults have dementia or a disability or depression; the pupils have severe learning difficulties, complex needs or autism.
Uniting two such disparate groups for an hour a week at the care home has had astonishing results.
It’s a small, simple yet strong solution to the society’s most pressing issue – division. You can read the whole piece here.
Paul Williams has a learning disability and was once an athlete. Years in institutional care meant he didn’t mention his talent. With the Time to Connect project, which I wrote about in the Guardian today, he dug out his medals, has done a local talk and is now writing his life story.
Williams, his care organisation and volunteer are part of the Time to Connect community inclusion project. This encourages stronger links between people using care services and their neighbourhoods, and ensures they become more active citizens. Time To Connect is a partnership between social inclusion charity NDTi(National Development Team for Inclusion) and Timebanking UK, the national charity that helps people to share time and skills.
So far, Time to Connect has involved 265 people: 92 care staff, 102 older people, 39 learning disabled people, 10 people with mental health support needs and 22 time bank members. An interim reportdescribes positive outcomes for all participants: “The evaluation found numerous examples of increased confidence and motivation among care staff as well as changes to attitudes and behaviour. This is in turn leading to increased opportunities for people to connect with their communities.”
Time to Connect adds value to care work because support staff get a greater glimpse into people’s lives and characters, rather than focusing simply on their physical needs. Clive Brown, Paul’s support worker, says: “It makes the job more rewarding and it improves my relationship with the people I’m working with. It just makes me smile a little more.”
If you need social care support, why can’t services respond better to your individual aspirations – instead of fitting you into what’s already on offer?
This aim – shifting traditional social work practice to “community led” methods – is at the heart of a new programme I’ve just reported on.
Leeds is one of nine local authorities changing adult social care by developing community-led social work (in a nutshell – more local solutions). The councils are being supported in this drive by social inclusion charity National Development Team for Inclusion’s community-led support (CLS) programme. NDTi has just published an evaluation from the first year of delivery in the participating areas
Gail*, for example, has a learning difficulty, mobility problems and is prone to angry outbursts. Leeds council adult social care staff have supported her intermittently over a few years, helping with self-care and chaotic living conditions.
Recently, it considered commissioning weekly visits from a support worker to help Gail manage her home. But instead, under a new approach launched in Leeds last year, Gail met social work staff at community “talking points” – venues such as libraries and churches instead of at home or at the council. The neutral environment sparked different conversations about support. Gail said she wanted to volunteer and staff felt able to be more creative with her care.
A social worker supported Gail to explore opportunities at her community centre, where she began volunteering. Her self-esteem has grown, her personal appearance has improved and she has begun anger management classes.
Feedback from people like Gail involved in the new support method includes comments about staff such as “they listened to me” and “we did talk about the important things”.
The concept of community social work is not new, but demand for social care, pressure on staff and funding cuts mean less time and freedom to develop innovative solutions. The 2014 Care Act encourages community-focused support, but this has been hard to achieve. A difficulty in developing “strengths-based” solutions is well documented, for example, in recent guidance from Think Local Act Personal.
At Leeds, adult social services director Cath Roff says the council had two choices: “Either we go down the road of ever-tightening interpretation of eligibility criteria to manage resources, or try a new approach. Social work services are increasingly becoming the ‘border patrol’, policing in order to manage reducing budgets. None of us came into social care to do that.”
Anxiety and mobility issues mean that 76-year-old Anna Bolton* is usually housebound. But regular calls to a free, confidential helpline for older people have helped her “feel normal”.
Bolton’s mental health deteriorated after she was widowed two years ago. Although she has had some support from local mental health counsellors in her native north-east England, help from Blackpool-based The Silver Line was “invaluable” and more immediate than waiting months for a counselling referral.
The Silver Line, created in 2013 by Esther Rantzen (who also created Childline), is a free, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year helpline offering information and friendship, and signposts people to local organisations for support or social activities.
“There’s still stigma about mental health,” says Bolton. “It’s often easier to speak to a stranger, and nice to know you can call day or night.”
Bolton, who has no family nearby, contacted the helpline after it was mentioned by a receptionist at her GP surgery. She is among the 10,000 people who call the helpline – often referred to as the Childline for older people – every week.
What does someone who is supported by social care look like?
Transforming stereotypical perceptions of social care is the aim of a new photography exhibition showing in London this month – some of the featured images are shown below.
SELF Season 2 is a collaboration between photographer Dean Belcher and social care provider Certitude.
Everyone featured in the exhibition is either connected with Certitude or with activities offered by Age UK Hounslow, west London. The project’s ambition is to use imagery “to depict the commonalities between people within social care rather than reinforcing the often-imposed barriers and roles that people are given”.
The new show follows the success of an exhibition (SELF: Portraits in Social Care) held in Brixton earlier this year.
* SELF: Portraits in Social Care is running until Thursday 28th September at Montague Hall, 30 Montague Rd, Hounslow TW3 1LD, Monday to Friday 3pm – 5pm. For further details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
“A certain amount of support has gone, so this has made people themselves more involved with each other – we get together more.”
I spoke to older people like Val, Rene and Jane, who live in sheltered housing on the south coast, for a piece in the Guardian this morning; the comment above reflects how the kind of housing they live in has changed radically in recent decades.
Rene spoke to me about the shock felt by residents as support services are cut, their criticism of government and the need to rally round and adapt (with peer-to-peer support, for example) as help is scaled back.
Over 20 years ago, for example, the Worthing Homes sheltered complex I visited had housing staff onsite who ran activities. Now, thanks to years of government cutbacks to sheltered housing support, there are three frontline staff rotating across up to 2,000 homes in the region, depending on need, and drop-in sessions run by external experts.
General sheltered housing, like that run by Worthing Homes, offers low-level support and self-contained accommodation for low income people aged 55 or older. Benefits include greater independence and less reliance on health and social care.
The approach in the Worthing region, an area known for its high proportion of older people, underlines the value of sheltered housing as the population ages, and mirrors similar moves across the country.
Simon Anderson, Worthing Homes head of customer services, says the landlord and residents have tried to work together since the council funding cut: “We were asked to do much more work for less money…but ultimately this is a housing provider and its residents coming together [through agreeing new initiatives] at a time of austerity”.
A 2012 Age UK report, Making it Work for Us [pdf] suggests “listening and responding to the views of residents should be fundamental in shaping what sheltered and retirement housing offers”. Simon explains: “Some people who moved in when there was someone [staff] here all the time…Now they’ll be thinking ‘I didn’t sign up for this’…So in conjunction with them, we began discussions on what the future service would look like. Social isolation was a significant issue for many”.
With the green paper on such issues due after the election, and further funding changes looming, Simon acknowledges “the lack of clarity and certainty”, yet he is resolute: “We have no plans to withdraw our sheltered schemes as they bring significant benefits to our residents as well as savings to the public purse by maintaining our residents’ health, tenancies and independence.”
Roy Warman’s wife, Phyllis, died in January 2015. Buoyed by well-wishers in the first few weeks of bereavement, the visits and telephone calls gradually dwindled, and he felt increasingly alone. Many of his friends have passed away, he does not have any family nearby and the couple never had children. He explains: “The longer it goes without speaking to someone, the harder it gets.” He describes loneliness as “one of the hardest things that you will encounter in life”, likening feeling low to “living in a void”.
Today he is part of the charity Age UK’s telephone befriending service that matches older people with like-minded volunteers for friendship or phone calls. Roy has weekly phone calls with a volunteer he describes as “like the daughter I never had” and he also has regular visits from another volunteer as part of Age UK’s face-to-face befriending scheme.
The kind of weekly phone call or visit that Roy gets are among the solutions to help ease the loneliness epidemic affecting 1.2 million older people in England; I’ve written about this for the Guardian today.
Age UK says that 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely and that this has an adverse impact on mental health, and the challenge will increase as our population ages. In the next 20 years, England’s over-85 population is set to rise from nearly 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million.
The theatre performance, which takes place in different public spaces across the south London borough, is inspired by the fact that loneliness is increasing at a time when our our cities are becoming ever more crowded. The show has been developed using anecdotes, opinions and experiences of older people in south London.
The shows are performed in public spaces, from outside tube stations to public squares, in the hope that the shared experience of performance will spark the audience to have conversations and take action based on the show’s themes. Osborne says the aim is to provoke people to consider the issues highlighted by the performance: “It’s about your local community and how you fit within it,” says creative producer Chloe Osborne, “but also about what your responsibility is for ensuring that others belong in it too.”
Encouraging dementia-friendly design is an important part of the debate and some of the innovative developments in this area are a welcome contrast to the lack of progress elsewhere.
Care and support charity the Abbeyfield Society has unveiled a £9m new development, Abbeyfield Winnersh, in Berkshire. Early images give one an idea of how design can be used to support people with dementia. Granted, the images look a bit eerie on account of the noticeably absent people, but they at least offer a glimpse of what the new developments in dementia design can offer.
Each of the 60 residents in Abbeyfield Winnersh will have their own ‘window’ next to their front door (pictured above) – effectively a memory box with instantly recognisable, personal items to help them identify their own door.
All bedrooms – all leading onto an outdoor space – are arranged in six, circular clusters of 10 ‘households’ aiming to offer a more homely, community feel.
The furniture and furnishings have been chosen to reduce anxiety with, says Abbeyfield “calming colours and textures chosen to stimulate the senses and promote reminiscent memories”.
Facilities for family and friends include a playground for young children, above.
Involving the friends and relatives of care home residents in the life of a care home is a crucial and not often acknowledged issue in dementia support. As a previous post on this blog by Kate Murray stresses, the importance of helping children understand and be aware of dementia cannot be underestimated.
Across the country, there are a dozen government-funded centres for advanced training, providing specialist education for young musicians. But there is no such equivalent for their young disabled counterparts.
However, it is hoped that an arts festival, which opens next Friday, will strengthen a campaign for the first ever such facility for musicians with special education needs and disabilities.
The return of the festival, which was launched last year, reflects the venue’s aim to champion arts accessibility and to contribute to a shift in perceptions of disability. As part of next week’s event, Colston Hall, run by Bristol Music Trust, is holding an exhibition involving the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust (the trust’s aim is to remove the barriers to music-making faced by disabled people).
Ruth Gould, artistic director of Liverpool based disability arts organisation DaDaFest, summed up the situation when I interviewed her recently, highlighting how negative assumptions about disability linger on in popular culture (“Lack of training, lack of educational opportunities, lack of work, lack of media and arts representation, demise of independent support, cuts in mobility allowance and personal assistance”.)
Colston Hall, run by independent charity Bristol Music Trust, wants to be home to the UK’s first centre for advanced training for disabled young musicians, both to encourage more opportunities for them to get qualifications and pursue a career in music, or just to be able to enjoy music. The aim of the campaign for a new centre, launched at the House of Commons earlier this year, is for the centre to train 2,500 young people from across England, and set a national benchmark for music accessibility.
The centre would form part of a £45m revamp of Colston Hall – Bristol council, the government and Arts Council have committed a total £25m so far – with new classrooms, state-of-the-art technology lab. The technology would include cutting edge instruments, such as those played by the flicker of an eye, or software that uses facial movements to control music.
Bristol Music Trust currently trains young disabled and special needs musicians, but the redevelopment would add new classrooms and a state-of-the-art technology lab will set new national accessibility standards. The venue, currently not accessible to disabled people, is due to close next summer for redevelopment; the plan is for it to reopen in 2019, fully accessible and home to the UK’s first specialist centre for the training of young disabled musicians.
The area is already home to the South-West Open Youth Orchestra which is the UK’s only disabled-led regional youth orchestra. The Paraorchestra also recently relocated to Bristol. The addition of a centre for advanced training at Colson Hall, supporters hope, would turn the region into a beacon for accessibility and equal opportunity.
* On the same topic of accessible arts, integration and young people, I recently came across an innovative music project that aims to raise awareness about visual impairment and sight loss. Musician Marie Naffah, a 23-year-old singer/songwriter, was inspired to explore blindness after her grandmother developed age-related macular degeneration. Marie wrote, recorded and performed a song while blindfolded and then collaborated with a group of six blind and visually impaired musicians to record the track, ‘Blindfold‘. Disability is not an obstacle to creativity or talent, as Marie says in a TEDx Talk at the Courtauld Institute that went live this week.