Growing Connections Summary Report

The aim of the Growing Connections project was to improve the physical and mental well-being of socially isolated and lonely older people in the Northwich area, by encouraging participation in volunteering opportunities at Grozone (a welcoming and supportive garden space in the centre of Northwich), as well as through various outreach activities.

Growing Connections was commissioned as part of Brightlife’s ‘Bright Ideas’ strand and was delivered by Groundwork Cheshire Lancashire and Merseyside, part of a national group of charitable trusts called the Federation of Groundwork Trusts.

The Grozone was established in Northwich by Groundwork Cheshire Lancashire and Merseyside, to provide opportunities for people of all ages to improve their physical and mental wellbeing through volunteering. While the project had attracted some older volunteers in the past, the majority were younger people (including those with learning difficulties). 

By providing a regular volunteering opportunity specifically for over-50s, it was hoped that the recruitment of socially isolated older people would be facilitated. This would not only empower these individuals to improve their own wellbeing, but also enable them to use their knowledge and experience to support younger volunteers.

Growing Connections was awarded £18,926 for 1 year.

Key learning

  • Consultation and research of potential participants is essential to ensuring that the offer meets their needs
  • Development and maintenance of good local networks avoids duplication and improves sustainability
  • Participants should have opportunities to develop wider social networks outside the primary activity in which they are involved
  • Activities should be accessible and welcoming to older people rather than being specifically aimed at one age group
  • Effective marketing and promotion is crucial to engaging those who are most socially isolated and lonely

 

Development and Delivery

The Growing Connections project was overseen by an existing Groundwork staff member.

Participants were recruited through direct marketing (with a focus on the types of activities being offered, rather than on the age of the participants), combined with referral by local providers of accommodation, transport and health services.

Many people in the target cohort lacked confidence and were reluctant to take part in the Growing Connections project without support, so the development of an informal partnership network, through which organisations could share opportunities and refer participants into each others’ services, was a crucial recruitment tool. Recruitment rates varied throughout the year, as participants were less inclined to engage with the project during autumn and winter.

Initially, a single weekly session at Grozone was established. However, several participants expressed a desire to take part in other activities, the timing of which did not coincide with this weekly session. As a result, it was decided to widen the offer so that participants could access any of their preferred activities, such as gardening, cooking, music, bushcraft and site maintenance (including carpentry).

In addition to the activities at Grozone, outreach sessions were delivered at three residential care homes in the area, with a view to building the confidence of participants and creating a wider sense of community within the homes. The sessions, which were co-designed with participants, included activities such as tabletop gardening and crafts, as well as the creation of a wheelchair-accessible raised bed in the communal garden of one care home. Transport was made available through a local charity when required. 

Unfortunately, attendance of these outreach sessions was relatively low, partly due to confusion over the timing of sessions as a result of insufficient communication and planning between the delivery partner and care home managers.

 

 

Impact and legacy

Reducing loneliness

While the data does show improvements for some participants in terms of a reduction in loneliness and isolation, higher levels of social contact and improved health and wellbeing, reluctance of many participants to complete the evaluation questionnaire means that the conclusions that can be drawn from this data are very limited. 

However, anecdotal evidence from many participants suggests that the project had a positive impact on loneliness and wellbeing.

The decision to extend the project offer to include participation in all Grozone activities resulted in a greater range of social interaction and intergenerational co-operation, with many participants socialising outside the project, including with younger Grozone volunteers.

Developing skills

Older volunteers brought valuable knowledge, experience and skills to the projects in which they took part, in areas including carpentry, plumbing, horticulture and site maintenance.

Groundwork Cheshire Lancashire and Merseyside was able to establish new and improved partnership and referral networks as a result of the Growing Connections project, including links with Cheshire West Voluntary Action to support future funding applications and volunteer recruitment efforts.

Sustainability

All of the participants were offered the opportunity to continue to volunteer at the Grozone and many of them have done so. There are now many more volunteers than before the project began.

The accessible raised bed that was created at one of the care homes as part of the outreach sessions is now being used to encourage residents to grow flowers and vegetables, while the other participating care homes have continued to offer gardening opportunities for their residents using the planters that were provided as part of the project.

 

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