Leeds City Council has commissioned its 37 neighbourhood networks to help tackle social isolation and loneliness. They provide a range of support, which continued throughout the pandemic, helping hundreds of vulnerable and frail older people stay connected.
What was done?
Leeds Neighbourhood Networks aim to support older people to live independently and participate in their communities as they grow older through a range of activities and services provided at a local level. They include advocacy, activities to improve health and wellbeing and social opportunities from painting groups to befriending support.
Some are run directly by the networks, while others are supported by them. The networks have developed over the past 30 years and there are now 37 individual networks covering the whole of the city. All are run with the involvement of older people, referred to as members.
The council has always supported the networks with funding, but from 2010 started directly commissioning them as part of the wider integration agenda set out under the local sustainability and transformation plan.
There are four main priorities under the current five-year funding agreement that started in 2018 – reducing social isolation and loneliness, increased contribution and involvement, increased choice and control and enhanced health and wellbeing. This was linked to the council’s existing ambition to make Leeds the “best city in the UK to grow old in”.
The last 18 months have been dominated by the pandemic, which meant the networks have had to radically alter what they would have done. But the networks rose to the challenge.
For example, in late 2019 one of the networks established a digital health hub, which provided vital support during the first lockdown, training more than 50 older people about how to get online and access platforms such as Zoom. Laptops and tablets were also loaned to those who needed it and the network then ran a series of online talks and coffee mornings.
As the UK began unlocking last summer, the networks quickly moved towards more face-to-face contact while retaining social distancing. These included allotment projects, organised walks picnics and assisted shopping so the frailer residents could start getting out-and-about again.
Jacki Lawrence, one of the volunteers who runs an organised walking group, said such services have proved to be invaluable to people at risk of social isolation. “Providing opportunities like this is so important. It helps people stay healthy and get out and mix with others. We all love it.
“We meet new people and make new friends. We have over 80 different walks we do – so we never do the same one twice in a year. Before the pandemic we were getting 30 to 40 people each time. Obviously we have had to keep the groups small over the last 18 months, but it has been really important to do and has helped everyone.”
A review of the networks by the Centre for Ageing Better published at the end of 2020 also praised them for the work they have been doing. It said they were an “essential” part of Leeds’s community-based approach and the work they had done both before the pandemic and during it showed the impact they could have in supporting older people to stay well, connected and active in their communities.
While having networks that are embedded in the local community is a real strength, it does come with challenges.
Council Commissioning Manager for Older People David Peel said: “Having different approaches is fine, but you don’t want a postcode lottery to develop so we encourage the networks to work together and share best practice.”
To help with this the council funds, in partnership with the Leeds Older People’s Forum, a third sector development manager post that works with the networks. Monthly sessions are held for network members to drop in and discuss practices, while specialists are invited in to provide advice and training.
“We had the lead for dementia attend one recently,” said Mr Peel. “It just helps ensure the networks have access to the best local expertise and are supported to work together, while making the most of the benefits of having such a local approach.”
The networks are getting back to re-starting many of the face-to-face activities that had to stop during the winter lockdown with the aim of building on what has been learnt. “We really see this as the chance to build on what is already in place and all the innovative work done during the pandemic,” Mr Peel said.
Working with the networks and their local communities, this could involve working more with younger people as part of a wider range of ages. Some of the networks have gone as far as revising their charitable objectives while others involve the wider community through intergenerational projects. One group has run events for young families, putting on sports sessions for children and organising trips to local attractions, such as children’s farms.
“Our funding focus is on older people, but there is no reason why some of the projects can’t also take intergenerational approaches, recognising that older people are a key part of a wider community. We are also always keen to see the networks working with a range of different partners and local businesses – that is what the community approach is all about, making the most of local assets,” added Mr Peel.
One example of that is the work done by Holbeck Together. The network has developed a relationship with local fish and chip shop, Park Fisheries. They provide discounted lunches for a regular lunch club held at a local church and even donated food during the pandemic and for the VE Day celebrations.
Network chief officer Elissa Newman said: “Park Fisheries always look outward to the community and ask ‘how can we support others? They really care about those living locally and have acted generously. It sets an example to everyone.”