Tackling loneliness and social isolation is a key priority in older persons’ housing. Loneliness and isolation is known to contribute to a more rapid deterioration in both the mental and physical health of an older person. Equally important is the detrimental impact it has on someone’s quality of life.
Addressing isolation and loneliness presents a significant challenge to large organisations such as Nottingham City Homes. We have 68 independent living schemes providing homes to over 2,300 older people. Forty five per cent of tenants moving into schemes are of working age, but we also have high numbers of older residents with significant health and mobility needs.
Due to funding cuts and demographic change, NCH no longer employs scheme managers/wardens. Tenants receive support from Independent Living Coordinators, based on their level of need, with a focus on securing additional support for vulnerable tenants from statutory and non-statutory agencies.
Our approach to activities has also shifted. We no longer employ staff to deliver activities themselves; our focus is now on supporting tenants to organise and deliver activities themselves. This makes use of the talents and skills that they have and encourages voluntary sector and community groups to deliver activities within our schemes. This approach has borne impressive results: in 2016 there were an average of 170 activities available within schemes on a monthly basis, now there are over 500. The variety of activities available has also grown, as we have got more community partners involved. It is stating the obvious, but bringing people together for social activities is important in addressing isolation and loneliness, as it develops connections and friendships that last beyond the activity itself.
Providing an enticing setting for activities to take place is also vitally important. Through our ‘Grander Designs’ programme we are providing enticing and stylish communal spaces for our tenants to socialise and relax in. The feedback from our tenants has indicated that this has been a significant factor in encouraging people to come together in a shared space, even if this is simply to read a book, newspaper or to watch the television.
It is important to stimulate activities that speak to the range of residents living in our schemes. This includes arts and sports based, local history and special interest, music and performance as well as ‘traditional’ activities such as bingo and coffee mornings.
Our ‘Golden Gloves’ boxing skills activity is a prime example of thinking outside the box to attract a broad range of tenants. Not an obvious activity for older persons’ schemes, it was borne out of a facilitated visit to a local boxing club for a few of our older residents. With support from a small amount of external funding this quickly evolved into ‘Golden Gloves’ sessions being put on in schemes across the city, which have attracted male tenants who are typically harder to engage in social activities. Residents have travelled to schemes where sessions have been put on (we have provided taxis where necessary) creating links and friendships between tenants of different schemes. Sessions focus on functional fitness and so are appropriate for all ages and fitness levels – our oldest participant has been a 92-year-old lady. The boxing club has now trained two of our tenants as instructors so that the sessions are sustainable.
Social dining is another example of social activity that has brought people together. We have partnered with a local scout group to provide cheap and healthy meals using ‘Fareshare’-sourced food for a cheap price. The scout group has used a redundant commercial kitchen in one of our schemes to cook two-course meals that are then delivered to and served in the communal lounges of our schemes.
Each week there are now four communal dining sessions in our schemes across the city and again we will provide transport for those unable to attend otherwise. Often the social dining will be prior to other activities and diners will be encouraged to participate in these too.
Social dining, as with the majority of our activities, is also open to those within the local community and is becoming a focus for ‘social prescribing’ by community based health and care staff
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on activities within schemes – following Government advice we have closed our communal lounges and suspended all organised activities in order to maintain social distancing and protect our tenants.
We are having to radically rethink our approach to addressing loneliness in these unusual times and this will evolve over time. Currently, we are focussing on providing links to digital channel based activity ideas including art based activities, quizzes and exercise routines (and providing paper based information and other materials to those that are digitally excluded).
We are also working with local schools to facilitate pen pal arrangements and of course using phone contact to check in regularly on our tenants prioritising those that are most vulnerable. Our social dining has now become a meal delivery service! Like everybody in the country our priority is ensuring that our tenants and staff stay safe and well, so that we can get back to creating social communities when the crisis is over.