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Confronting Later Life Loneliness: Connecting the Elderly with LinkAge Network

Jo Stokes | LinkAge Network | Elder

LinkAge Network is a Bristol-based charity supporting community development for older people to help reduce social isolation and loneliness. This February, the charity launches a membership network – a membership-based facility through which individuals, groups and organisations can share knowledge and resources to strengthen later life community provision. We talked to LinkAge Network CEO Jo Stokes about the power and potential of the Network and her hopes for future community collaboration in the city.

Why did you get involved with LinkAge Bristol?

Over my career, I have worked with older people on and off, and really enjoyed it: I’ve done care work, I worked at a day centre at one point, and for a significant portion of my working career, I was a mental capacity advocate.

There are so many barriers and prejudices against older age in society. And yet actually, most of us will grow old, so it seems slightly ridiculous. For me personally, though, it’s really important to have a job where I use my skills to make a difference for other people and in my community.

What is the aim of LinkAge Network and why it was set up?

The aim of LinkAge Network is around community provision for older people, aged 55+. Our mission statement is to create lasting solutions that reduce social isolation, improve health and well-being and strengthen communities. And the lasting solutions bit is really important because it’s about sustainability. In a world of funding pressures, you need to pay attention to how projects will be sustained if funding runs out.

LinkAge was set up in 2007 from an amalgamation of older people, the council and other voluntary sector providers who felt that there needed to be an organisation with an overarching facilitative role around community provision.

How we actually do that has changed a lot over the years, but our core purpose remains the same. We are driven by providing what older people want: we shouldn’t be telling older people what they want to do, they should be leading us to where they want to go.

"The LinkAge Network is an offer to local people: “If you’ve got something new starting, let us know, and we’ll get it out there"."

How do you get the message out about what is available to older people in Bristol?

We produce a What’s On guide which focuses on different neighbourhoods in Bristol - in partnership with local organisations. The guides are quite well known: last year we printed 21,000 copies, and we’re still asked for more, so we know that people really value them.

We have a long mailing list to individuals, but mostly to providers including The Tourist Information Centre and Age UK, as well as places such as community centres or hospitals. The guides are scattered around, so hopefully, people find them, although they can always ring us and request one.

We also have lots of activities on our website, and you can search by either activity or local area, and people do ring too, saying, “I was hoping to go and do a dance in north Bristol, could you let me know what’s on and when?”

Is isolation and loneliness a problem in Bristol’s older generation and is community collaboration essential to solving this?

It is a problem and an incredibly important thing that we all need to tackle as it has an enormous physical and mental impact on people. Community collaboration is one way of tackling the problem. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s a great start because it’s often communities that are affected by our current way of life, which then leads to isolation and loneliness in individuals.

An example is family mobility now: people move around more, so you might have family that maybe would have been very close and looked after an older family member, but who are now living hundreds of miles away from them.

Even things like how we shop have changed. People shop online, they go out to the big retailers out on the edge of cities, and it means fewer people physically on the streets to bump into every day and fewer local shops to pop to.

If you’re not able to jump in the car or you don’t want to shop online, then you’re losing out. The community is the jigsaw of how we are all connected with other people, including these types of things.

"It’s not enough to be excellent in our own little silos. We will be so much better if we’re linked together and informed about what’s going on out there - and also what older people actually want."

Can providing later life resources also help support a community’s unique identity?

Yes, absolutely. There are some strong neighbourhoods in Bristol whose identity has been affected by this kind of work. Bedminster, for example, used to be quite a poor neighbourhood, but the community development in the past 15 years has had such an impact. It’s now a vibrant place, full of the arts – including projects that have reached into high-rise buildings, for instance, where most the residents are older.

Older people can often be invisible in communities - by providing this strong network can we integrate those in later life into the community?

Yes. If we see people who potentially could be rendered “invisible” by age as an asset, then suddenly we recognise their strengths and what they can offer us.

Often the physical walls, or the locked door at home or in a care home, for example, can almost be an impossible barrier between what’s going on in the community and the people living there. But with our work, we’ve actually seen some of those barriers begin to be broken down.

For example, we were able to disseminate some funds at Christmas for people to do some Christmas activities with older people. One organisation that asked for funds was a local children’s nursery, which used the money to make things that they could share with the older people.

Importantly it’s not just a one-way thing. The nursery children, I am sure, brought joy into that care home, but also they will have benefited from that relationship and what the older people gave back to them.

For more information about LinkAge Network, visit the website: www.linkagebristol.org.uk.

The Network will connect people, groups and organisations to share knowledge, resources and skills to strengthen community provision for people aged 55+ in the West of England. Membership is open to groups, organisations and individuals.

How do you get your feedback from older people in the community?

We try to do it in lots of different ways. In one of our projects, we map what is out there already and look at Bristol’s different population groups and what their needs are.

Doing that we can start to see the gaps. And then members of our team go to those neighbourhoods, walk around, do some visual mapping so they can see what’s going on and start talking with providers, professionals or volunteers.

Once we’ve got to the point where we’re actually getting consistent feedback that, yes, there isn’t much going on in this area, then it’s time to start talking with local people from the older age groups about their experience and what they would want to see.

That could be through asking people who are just walking down the high street, riding the buses is also a good way, because people sit down next to you, you can have a chat, or talking at bus stops or the post-office – it really is guerrilla community development work.

We can also convene a meeting in the area among interested parties, and sometimes we find people when we’re out and about in the community who are already very interested in working to push the agenda forward as well.

Why are you launching the LinkAge Network this month?

There’s a lot of experience at LinkAge Network, and we’ve got some strong features in the charity we can offer into the community. In particular, we’ve got a mature communications network through which we can reach a lot of people: individuals, voluntary groups and professional providers.

The Network is an offer to local communities: “If you’ve got something new starting, let us know, and we’ll get it out there.”

We’re also strong on generating resources of all kinds, and we’ve got a good success record in attracting little pots of funding. And we’ve also we’ve got fantastic relationships with local businesses who are interested in supporting this kind of work.

What are your aims for the Network?

In the first year, it’s about engaging as many people as possible – and really listening to the people that are coming to us about what is it that we could provide that could be useful to them.

Over time I want the Network to be the place to go for providers, commissioners and others in the sector to find out what’s going on, to take the temperature of the sector and possibly to work with us. I would want it to be influential for decision-makers who are making decisions about services for old people.

What kind of attitude do you want to encourage through the Network?

I want to encourage collaboration because I think it has to be the future of the voluntary sector. And I think I’d want to be encouraging us all to be informed - it’s not enough to be excellent in our own little silos. We will be so much better if we’re linked together and know what’s going on out there, and also what older people actually want.

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