Kent: Using community wardens to help older people at risk of social isolation

Kent County Council's pilot project helps to support older people in the community who are isolated and at risk of loosing their independence.

Kent County Council has launched a pilot project to support older people in the community.

Community wardens in four areas have taken on extra responsibilities to act as community connectors to support older people who are isolated and at risk of loosing their independence. 

Social isolation and loneliness on the rise 

Research suggests loneliness and social isolation is on the increase. Before the pandemic, Age UK estimated there were 1.4 million older people who were in this position – around one in 12 over 50s. They predict that will increase to two million by 2026.  

There is a complex mix of reasons for this growing social isolation, including the ongoing impact of COVID-19. It is bad for health and increases demand on public services, particularly GPs and care.  

To try to tackle this, Kent County Council provides a range of services and interventions to support people to live well at home and improve their physical and mental health. It is seeking to build on those through the new Positive Wellbeing service, which is aimed at the over 65s. It was launched early in 2021, just as the country was going into the third lockdown.

The project is co-funded by the European Union’s Interreg France (Channel) England Programme. It is free and confidential, operating from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, in four small areas of the county as a pilot. People can self-refer themselves for help or friends and family can, either by phone or online. 

The aim is to provide up to 12 weeks of support to help reconnect people with their communities and regain independence.  

Eight community wardens in the four areas have been given extra training covering areas such as mental health first aid, health coaching and suicide prevention to work as community connectors.  

It is very much based on the concept of enabling the individual to help themselves. So the wardens work alongside the individuals to develop personal plans and help them to enact them. It may involve accompanying them to social activities or even setting up new groups if needed.  

The cooking club that transformed lives 

A perfect example of this is the work done with four women who had all had strokes and lived alone. A cooking group was set up specifically for them to help them regain their cooking skills and confidence cooking at home. A local chef was recruited to run a series of sessions with the women, who have become firm friends and even spent Christmas together. The chef was so impressed by the impact it has had that he has secured funding from elsewhere to offer similar support to others. 

One of the four women who was helped was Mrs B. She said:

Life was very challenging. I ended up through the pandemic being on my own getting very, very lonely. Sometimes the phone wouldn’t ring for weeks and I wouldn’t see anybody at all.  

But the cooking groups have transformed her life. “You can get, when you’re lonely, in a very dark place. I could have let go. Now I am a lot more happy - my diary is full, I feel normal, worthwhile and I like myself.”  

Mandy Quy-Verlander, one of the wardens who has been trained to be a community connector, said: “We make time for people, starting with a private discussion about ways a person would like to reconnect, get active and rediscover a sense of purpose.

Together, we then work up a personal action plan to guide them through their journey to re-engage socially.  

“We also provide a range of assistance to give people confidence to make the next step and take part in local activities. It could be a simple phone call to help someone manage their anxiety or, depending on the situation with COVID-19 restrictions, going with them to an art or cookery class for example.  

“As wardens, we are very tapped into the support available for vulnerable and isolated people in our communities. Again, in line with any COVID-19 restrictions, we can also set up activities if there are gaps in provision locally.  

“It’s magical to see the positive effect making friends, discovering new interests or picking up an old hobby can make. As well as physical health improving, people’s mental health gets better, reducing the need for GP visits and other public services.”  

Since Positive Wellbeing launched, over 40 people aged over 65 have benefitted. Hundreds more have received support from community wardens in the pilot areas who were not able to take part in the service and a social media and communications campaign has reached 4.7 million people with advice and support since March 2020. The project is due to run to January 2023.

Rebecca Law, Public Protection Business Development Manager at Kent County Council, said: “If it proves successful, and we are confident it will, we hope to expand it. We know there are growing numbers of people who are isolated and becoming frail.  

“We have deliberately made it very easy for people to access the service, no GP referral is needed which can often be off-putting for some.

“The Positive Wellbeing service is a proactive service – we want to support people before they get to the stage where they need further help or medical intervention. There are some people who cannot take part in the programme because their needs are too complex, but wardens are well placed to support those residents in other ways.

“Wardens also know their local areas – they are connected to the local organisations, charities, support services and activities and can really help people who are struggling with isolation and losing their independence. We know there is a growing risk of that because of the pandemic – and if it does work we could look at expanding across Kent and to other groups who particularly suffer from isolation and loneliness, such as people with disabilities or young people.” 

Contact details 

Rebecca Law, Public Protection Business Development Manager, Kent County Council: