A Big Lottery funded programme aimed at tackling social isolation has been running in Middlesbrough for the past seven years. It has helped to fund a range of different activities across the borough for the over 50s. To help people access these activities, extra support has been put in place to make it easier for people to get out-and-about by working with public transport providers and businesses to create an age-friendly environment.
What was done?
The Ageing Better Middlesbrough programme was launched seven years ago by Middlesbrough and Stockton Mind. Middlesbrough Council is a key partner and takes a strategic lead, chairing the steering group. It is part of a series of Big Lottery funded projects across the country to tackle loneliness and isolation among the over 50s.
The programme involves a number of different strands including raising awareness about available activities, funding new activities and providing outreach and befriending support to support people who are socially isolated and helping to connect people through digital inclusion support.
Grants of up to £5,000 were made available for community groups and there were more than 300 activities available before the pandemic to tackle social isolation. These included luncheon clubs, knitting groups, a DIY group for women, chair-based exercises, and arts and crafts activities.
These were promoted by the Ageing Better programme via a Monthly newsletter. People could also be referred on to other available activities.
A network of befrienders has also been established for those who need one-to-one support – many of the volunteers are themselves people who would otherwise be at risk of loneliness either because they have been bereaved or whose loved ones have moved into residential care.
Prior to the pandemic more than 4,000 people were involved in Ageing Better local activities. And while COVID has disrupted many of the activities, a number were able to keep running, including a weekly Dementia Friendly tea dance that was socially-distanced.
The digital inclusion project run by one of the partners, the Hope Foundation, has also been having a significant impact. A team of three digital support officers, supported by a group of volunteers, have provided one-to-one and group support to help older people get online.
The team have run ‘tea and technology’ sessions whereby they teach people how to use digital devices, but can also provide help over the phone or online.
Over the past five years they have helped more than 300 people. The work took on an extra dimension during the pandemic when people were less able to get out and relied on the online activities that were being provided including bingo sessions, quizzes armchair exercises and history projects.
The team supplied people with digital devices and taught them how to use them. One of those who was helped was Enid. “Having the tablet has been a great thing. I have a brother and sister living in Australia and for the first time I have been able to see pictures of them and their homes and watch some lovely videos. The tablet has also allowed me to join in with church services and prayer meetings. Maintaining this connection has been so important to me during the lockdown period.”
Middlesbrough is looking to build on what has been achieved so far and achieve the World Health Organization’s age-friendly status.
To help, a steering group, which includes older people representatives ad is led by public health, identified key areas that needed improving on. This included making it easier for people to use public transport and get around the borough – work which the council has co-produced with Ageing Better.
Middlesbrough Council Health Improvement Specialist Emma McInnes said: “The feedback we received was very clear – while there were lots of activities available to people, more focus was needed to make it as easy as possible for people to get around and make them feel confident they could.”
One of the steps that has been taken is the development of a transport resource guide. It includes journey assistance cards that people can carry to signify they need extra support using public transport. As well as displaying their disability, they can highlight what support people need whether it is helping finding a seat or scanning their travel cards.
Extra training is also being provided to public transport staff to make them aware of the need to support people wearing these cards. The guide also includes information about other local transport services including a volunteer car service and community minibus services.
Ms McInnes said: “Some people may just need a little more time getting on and off transport or some support in navigating the network. We wanted them to feel confident that they would get the help they need. The guide also includes details of how they can travel to the activities that are available. There is no point running these activities if people are having difficulty accessing them.”
As well as the work on transport, the programme is running a campaign called ‘Please have a Seat’. It is aimed at encouraging restaurants, cafes and retail outlets to allow people to use their premises to go to the toilet or have a rest or glass of water.
“The businesses display ‘Please have a seat’ sticker in the window – and it informs people that they can have a rest or use their toilets. Again, it is about giving people confidence they can leave the house.
An interactive map, has also been developed for professional including social prescribers to enable them to signpost people to Dementia friendly activities and support.”
The programme is still in the process of re-starting some of its activities that have had to be run digitally during the pandemic. But to help ensure everyone can benefit from what is on offer bespoke drop-in facilities have started being set up for certain groups at the highest risk of social isolation.
This includes a dementia and wellbeing hub that was launched at the end of July. The hub provides assessments for people as well as activities, including chair-based exercises. The council is also in the process of setting up a drop-in clinic for people with vision and hearing impairments.
“There is a lot more we want to do to make Middlesbrough as age-friendly as it can be. An important step is to keep looking at where you can improve. We know some groups find it harder to access support or get around and addressing this is one of our key priorities,” added Ms McInnes.
Ageing Better will cease to exist after March 2022, but the age-friendly agenda will be taken forward by the council through the Age-Friendly Steering Group.