News and Comment

Releasing the talents of isolated older people

Tuesday 31 January 2012


This is the latest in a series of posts in anticipation of new research from OPM about what local government can do to unlock local capacity. To find out more about the free evening seminar on Tuesday 21 February where the research will be launched, click here.

How can isolated older people be enabled to reconnect with and become active parts of their local communities again? Loss of a partner or increase in your own or your partner’s disability is often linked with a collapse of personal social networks. You can’t or don’t feel able to get out and about as before. Friends are diffident about contacting you. For older people in residential care this can be even more of an issue.

The usual answer to tackling isolation is to reach out to older people in their own homes through befriending services or enable them to come to social events. These are fine but they neglect the abilities of older people and the wish of many to be able to still help others and be a valued and active part of their communities.

There is a different approach: instead of starting with needs, focus on the assets that older people and the communities in which they live already possess. How can older people be enabled to make better use of them? This is the central question posed by the DWP / LGA Ageing Well programme.

OPM has been working with groups of older people in local areas up and down the country. Directly enabling older people to map their own and local community assets is really interesting. The half day workshops we facilitate yield an amazing variety of assets that could be shared. One person wants to lend out a car they can no longer drive in exchange for lifts. Another’s garden is too big but could be taken over by someone else as an allotment.

Probably even more widespread were the skills that people had, often from their previous work lives, but also ones that they took for granted that everyone else might have. These included child care, completing a tax return, cooking, DIY repairs, being a good talker, gardening knowledge, playing cards. Realising that others do not have these taken for granted skills was quite a revelation to many people and made them feel valued.

Mapping community assets also revealed all sorts of groups and places and spaces over and above those that would be generally recognised. In one workshop the local authority working with its partners and the voluntary sector had produced an extensive map of what was available locally. This was really helpful in stimulating discussion but also led to a vast number of other assets being identified. Pubs that provided pensioner lunch discounts, cinemas that held discount coffee, cake and film showings, cafes that made available their toilets to the public, as well as many activity groups that meet in different parts of the area.

We follow up the asset mapping with a second, workshop that helps participants sort through ideas for making best use fo their own and the community’s assets, formulate propjects they see as worthwhile and develop action plans to make them work.

Some of the ideas revolve around specific indvdiuals. For example Mary who is an elderly woman living in a residential home. Mary is highly skilled at knitting and crochet but due to arthritis is no longer able to continue. She is now linked up with a group of older and younger women in her area who want to learn to knit. They meet as knitting and social group at the residential home and the Mary acts as their consultant and trainer.

Other ideas are about stimulating community networks. For example, many older people do not want to take up existing opportunities to meet other people as they ‘smack of charity’. Enabling people to exchange time and skills through time banking gets round this problem, brings older people in touch with the rest of the community and helps break down stereotypes of old age.

Older people are immensely varied in both their talents and how they wish to live their lives. Just as we all are, of course! There won’t therefore be one way to tackle isolation for all. The asset based approach used by Ageing Well provides an energising way of exploring and developing new possibilities.

If you’d like to know more about OPM’s Ageing Well work or have experience of using enabling older people to use asset based approaches that you would be happy to share please get in touch via