IT was a £78m lottery-funded plan with big ambitions - to improve the lives of those over 50s suffering most at the grip of loneliness, and to find and share new ways of tackling the issue - with two Yorkshire cities right at its heart.
In September 2014, just eight months after The Yorkshire Post launched its award-winning Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, which is marking five years this week, projects in Leeds and Sheffield were each awarded £6m from the Big Lottery’s Ageing Better programme, which is now known as The National Lottery Community Fund.
Across the country, 100 local authority areas had bid for a share of the money, with Leeds Older People’s Forum and South Yorkshire Housing Association picked as two of just 14 to receive the six-year funding to “turn the tide” of isolation.
Within a year, Time to Shine, the Leeds project, and Age Better in Sheffield were up and running, both using older people at their core to devise, plan and shape projects across the two cities.
Now more than half way through their funding streams, which end in 2021, both projects have already seen tangible results, with dozens of individual projects funded, hundreds of volunteers recruited and thousands of isolated people feeling less lonely.
In Leeds, Time to Shine has funded 76 projects, as diverse as a social group for Chinese elders to a bespoke project for older LGBT people.
It’s latest funding round has supported Yorkshire Dance to run movement sessions for people with dementia living in care homes, and Float Your Boat, which uses canal boats to help people build new skills, and new connections.
Programme manager Hilary Wadsworth said the city’s thriving third sector had been crucial to the success of the project, which has already reached some 8,000 of the 37,000 people in Leeds who would describe themselves as lonely.
“We have a very skilled and experienced third sector.
“Our task has been to find projects that will help people to build meaningful connections,” she said. “We’ve used what we’ve learnt from the first couple of years to shape the latest projects we’ve funded, and found that what has had the most impact has been building those relationships that help to build confidence in a person who is lonely, so they can go on to create more relationships by themselves. Five of the projects we funded have proved to have such an impact that they have gone on to receive further funding, because we have shown that there is a need, and shown evidence that they work.”
She said the scale of the loneliness issue meant they are now trying to work with older people to prevent loneliness, and with those who may be isolated, but “may not feel that entrenched loneliness.”
“There are a lot of people still living under the radar, if we have the tools to open up the community for them, it can make an amazing difference in their lives,” she added. “We are still learning, and hope to identify and build on what we have done to help other organisations to identify and prevent loneliness in future.”
On the waterways of Leeds near Thwaite Mills Museum, each week you will find a group of men getting to grips with a canal boat. Float Your Boat received £149,000 funding from Time to Shine last year, and uses work as a catalyst for building relationships.
Many of the men who attend the sessions wouldn’t describe themselves as lonely, but are at one of the trigger points for suffering loneliness, as recent retirees, or those who have experienced a bereavement.
“We don’t take people out for boat trip,” project director Alan Bolton said. “It’s for the guys to start feeling useful, and to connect with each other and have a sense of community.
“There is a real sense of wellbeing that comes with feeling useful.”
The project is still evolving, but hopes to become part of the developing tourist industry on Leeds’s canals.
In Sheffield, the Wellbeing Practitioner project is one of just two projects from Age Better’s first phase that has also received funding for the final three years of the fund.
Ran by Sheffield Mind, it offers one-to-one counselling and group therapy for people over 50.
Semi-retired musician Stuart Arfield, 61, received counselling from the service after the break down of his marriage and the death of a close friend left him “in a real depression and a feeling of impending loneliness”.
After six months of counselling, he now volunteers for the service, helping out at a weekly social drop in.
He said: “The process helped me to find my way again.
“Now, as a peer mentor, I meet people informally in the Mind cafe, and it brings you up as a human being.”
Like in Leeds, the challenge in Sheffield over the next two years is to ensure there is a legacy for Age Better after 2021.
They have already reached 3,250 people, with the help of 500 volunteers, and have eight current projects, and plan to focus on social movement work this year to help “more people come together and be more neighbourly and create a legacy in the community”.
It’s own research has found it is reaching those who are most lonely and isolated, and of those who were helped by the wellbeing practitioner service, 80 per cent said they had seen an improvement in their mental wellbeing.
Programme delivery manager Ruth Hawke said: “When I speak to people who have been involved in one of our projects I can see how important it has been.
“We are not necessarily trying to build up a project that will run indefinitely, most people only stay with a project for three to six months, but instead, one of our aims is to get people to have the confidence to try new things by themselves and meet new people. It’s about empowering them.”
Ambitions to improve connections
The Lottery set up its £78m Ageing Better fund in a bid to tackle the “ongoing gaps in provision” for older people.
The ambitions were clear - it wanted to improve social connections for older people and enable older people to be more engaged in the design of services for their communities
It also hoped to challenge wider, “negative narratives” around ageing and building on a relational ‘test and learn’ approach where it would link up areas to share learning.
According to a report by Ageing Better, released last year, by 2040 nearly one in four people will be aged 65 or over - and of those, between seven and 17 per cent will experience isolation. Since 2014, more than 60,000 older people from diverse background around Britain have used projects funded by the programme to improve their social connections.