PRESS RELEASE 13/5/2015: ‘Little things’ can make a big difference to the lives of older people

A community project operating across Doncaster has found that it is small acts of kindness and the ‘little things’ which really make a difference to the lives of those at risk of loneliness in old age.

Community agents have been operating across the area in South Yorkshire since June last year, employed by charity Rural Action Yorkshire as part of a project funded by Doncaster Council, aimed at reducing rates of social isolation in the over-65s and linking people up to services more effectively in their area.

There are two agents working in urban and rural parts of the town. Their role is to identify the most at risk in the area, from mental and physical health problems, as well as loneliness and isolation, and make contact to find out what needs the individual may have. In many cases, the needs identified include social contact, digital skills, and mobility to get out and about. The Doncaster Community Connect project, as it is known, has also been piloting an iPad scheme which gets older people with little to no digital skills into using the Internet and technology, via the use of an app ‘Tap Into’ that allows friends and family to more easily keep in touch.

Since last summer, the two community agents have helped over 150 older people across Doncaster and rallied the assistance of 25 volunteers.

Sharon Middling, who covers the rural areas of Doncaster, has helped people through a range of problems, but it is often just company which is most valued: “The majority of clients who I come into contact with quote feeling trapped in their own homes, because they are caring for their partners, or just feeling as if they have nobody to talk to. They might describe carers as being unfriendly, or can’t stay long enough for a good chat, which is where the community agent role differs to the normal carer role.”

Dorothy, who Sharon worked with extensively before she moved into a nursing home, had limited mobility and mild dementia which deteriorated in recent months. She lived alone, and despite coming across as a happy individual, felt lonely and missed the company of others.

When asked if she would like Sharon’s visits to continue, Dorothy replied: “I won’t ask or expect you to come see me, as if I do then I can get disheartened if you don’t come, but I have enjoyed your company.” Sharon’s role involved signposting Dorothy to relevant services that might help alleviate her loneliness, such as craft sessions and complementary therapies. Before Dorothy moved into a care home, Sharon also strove to find a befriending service for her.

Agents are keen to get older people out and about and more active, where it is possible to do so if an individual’s health allows it. Jan Milner – the agent working in more urban areas of Doncaster – has achieved this with the setting up of a ‘walking football’ group, in partnership with the People Focussed Group in Intake.

Jan said: “Members of the group find that it gets them out of the house, moving about, and having a laugh and making new friends. Without the group they say they would just be at home not doing anything. It is a great way to maintain contact with the community and to feel part of your local area.”

Small gestures such as assisting individuals to switch energy suppliers have also helped. Older people are more at risk of paying over the odds for their energy, especially if they still pay by cheque and do not have the digital skills to compare the market providers properly.

Sharon discussed her own energy bills with clients and described how she had saved money as a result of switching. This often piques the interest of beneficiaries and the process of comparing energy suppliers can be a lesson in IT which can lead on to other skills and activities.

Valerie, who has lived alone since her husband died, had always wanted to learn more about IT, but did not have the confidence to try it on her own, despite owning a laptop and paying for a broadband connection. The community agent was able to connect Valerie to the Internet, guide her through the energy switch process, and eventually find savings of £15 per month which equates to £180 per year. At subsequent one-to-one sessions with Valerie, core IT information and tasks were repeated to embed the learning and enable Valerie to try new things on her own.

Similarly, the Tap Into app has stimulated clients to go on and learn more about computers and the Internet. A group of ten older people were originally supplied with iPads by Rural Action Yorkshire and shown how to use the app. Tap Into connects with friends and family on their own devices and allows the easy sharing of photos, messages and video, so that the older person receiving the media does not need to be digitally-savvy in order to use it.

It has been a resounding success, and led to a domino effect on those involved, as it provides the catalyst to engage them in learning more about computers and IT which they would not have done so without the introduction of the iPads. Clients have begun setting up their own email accounts, playing online Scrabble with family who live far away, and researching subjects online.

Joyce Leigh, whose family live in London, Africa, and New Zealand, reports feeling more engaged and up to date with what her family are doing, and being able to see uploaded photos has been a particular pleasure. Joyce said: “I was nervous before I started, but being able to contact my family, especially Lizzie who lives in West Africa, is delightful and would not have been possible without the support of the project.”

The app is currently only available on Apple devices, but the project has been extended so that it can be rolled out onto Android too.

Wayne Munro-Smith, project co-ordinator for the Doncaster scheme, said: “It is amazing how a little bit of help, advice, and company can go so far and have such wide-reaching effects, both on physical health and emotionally. We have so far helped older people who are the main carers for their spouses to feel less socially-isolated and cut off from the world, get people interested in new technology, and also encourage people to join new clubs and activities.

“It is never too late to learn a new skill and make new friends, and the role of the agent has been tapping into this belief and supporting older people to feel empowered and motivated to try new things.

“In the UK we have an ageing population and increasing reports of a loneliness epidemic. The project demonstrates that it is one-to-one intervention that can really make a huge difference to the lives and confidence of older people. In turn this can help us to reduce those feelings of being cut off from others, and celebrate the care we can all give to society and to ourselves, whatever our age or health status.”



Editor’s Notes

Photos attached to email: the walking group in Doncaster, which older people participate in under the guidance of community agents.

Media contact: Candice Dowson, Marketing & PR Officer, Rural Action Yorkshire tel. 0845 313 0270.

Doncaster Community Connect

Doncaster Community Connect, a project operated in partnership by Rural Action Yorkshire (RAY) and the People Focussed Group (PFG), is all about connecting people to services and ensuring they feel part of their community and able to take part in activities. It is aimed primarily at vulnerable people over the age of 65, who may be at risk of isolation, loneliness, and mental or physical health problems. It is an agent’s role to identify the most vulnerable and excluded in their local area, and make attempts to offer any support or help that is available for them.

Doncaster Community Agents is made possible through funding from Doncaster Council and Clinical Commissioning Group, and operates across Intake, Braithwell, Old Edlington, Micklebring and Stainton. Jan Milner, and her fellow agent Sharon Middling, continue to identify the most lonely, isolated and disconnected in their communities and offer support.

Anyone wishing to be involved or benefit from the project can contact Wayne Munro-Smith of RAY at 0845 313 0270.

Rural Action Yorkshire

Based at Askham Bryan, near York, RAY is one of 38 Rural Community Councils in England.  It isan independent, charitable, and voluntary organisation working across rural areas of North, South and West Yorkshire, to help communities improve the quality of life for all people living and working in rural Yorkshire.

RAY enables and empowers communities to develop the confidence to help themselves, and to ensure their needs are heard by policy makers and service providers – on a local, regional and national scale. Key work includes:

*Offering support, training, events and resources on everything affecting life in a rural area

*Help with funding, running community buildings, and staying up to date with the latest legislation

*Assisting with the implementation of Community Led Plans, which identify the strengths and weaknesses of an area and plan the future of community development work.

RAY and the other 37 rural community councils across England form the national ACRE Network (Action with Communities in Rural England). Find Rural Action Yorkshire online at Twitter @RuralYorkshire