Following our December Seminar, speaker Rob Hunter reflects on the work of Leicester Ageing Together in tackling social isolation and loneliness in older people
For a long time I have been interested in human flourishing: what it might mean to different people in a variety of individual and social contexts; what promotes it or prevents it – and under what conditions. As I get more interested personally and quasi-professionally in older age, the questions are the same. In Leicester Ageing Together’s (LAT’s) focus on addressing – and preventing – social isolation and loneliness, I talk with elders who feel their lives have shrivelled and diminished, affected in part by the dominant narrative of old age as decline. But I also find others who are enjoying life more, perhaps, than at any previous age, who seek, despite sometimes the constraints of disability and poverty, to lead bigger lives, who see themselves as growing and continuing to develop until their last breath.
LAT’s 16 organisational partners provide a variety of physical, social, environmental, learning and advice/ information opportunities designed to help individuals who wish become more engaged, more in charge of their lives, more stimulated, more influential. Helping older people strengthen their social networks, not only as a support in times of need but as a resource to their continued flourishing and development, is a key activity.
But it’s the way we help people think about themselves as they sometimes struggle to come out of ‘stuckness’ and seek to engage more with others that must be an equal priority.
As we enter the second half of our 4 year programme, we aim to strengthen three themes.
The first: seeking to ensure that older people get good attention, are well listened to, feel heard. Many people in society do not get good attention day-in, day-out. For older people this may be exacerbated by physical isolation, by social marginalisation, by internalised ageism – ‘I’m not worth bothering about’. Being well listened to, empathetically, on a regular basis can be a powerful experience. Most importantly it can release your own thoughts and feelings and enable you to solve your own problems. It also releases your attention so that you in turn can listen more effectively to others, to family, to friends. And the growing practice of ‘mindfulness with compassion’ has parallel benefits.
LAT is beginning to train a potentially large number of staff and volunteers in the basic skills of active listening and possibility coaching, in the understanding of ‘positive ageing’ , the 5 Steps to Mental Wellbeing and the significance and practice of mindfulness. As a programme, we need also to ensure that they have the organisational conditions under which to use these skills.
The second is an allied theme: ‘telling your story’. The process of ‘life review’ is seen as central to retaining a sense of self, or reclaiming a sense of significance. Taking stock at any stage of life is a valuable activity: touching base with ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I stand for?’, ‘who do I want to become?’ And particularly, perhaps, as you come up to the transition of retirement and need a platform from which to launch the next phase of your life, or after ten years or so of retirement when your sense of self may be in need of refurbishment, or towards the end of life when in Erikson’s terms, the challenge is to find self-acceptance or face despair. LAT has run a pilot course training facilitators in ‘Taking Stock’ or ‘Guided Autobiography. We aim to explore different ways of customising this process in different communities, and find ways of making these different life stories available to each other.
The third leg of this approach concerns community-building. How do we support people in local communities to look out for each other, to contradict the messages of social isolation and loneliness, to open up systems to each other in order to promote human flourishing, to listen well to each other, to include older people as agents of change? The key lies with the collective as well as with the individual and an approach to local systems and cultures illuminated by community psychology. Attention is increasingly given to developing wellbeing and life satisfaction in schools and workplaces with research demonstrating clearly that such approaches substantially enhance production/service or educational attainment. For older people the community is their ‘place of work’ in which they work to maintain connection, engagement, resilience and agency, and ‘place of learning’ where they learn to manage change, manage relationships and continue to grow and develop.
Leicester Ageing Together is funded by the BIG Lottery and one of 14 programmes in different parts of the country designed to address and prevent, over four years, social isolation and loneliness among those aged 50+. Rob Hunter is Chair of the LAT Strategic Board.