Social groups are back again, and Brightlife’s Social Prescribing Coordinators couldn’t be happier…not that they ever stopped being social butterflies!

Over the past year Social Prescribing Coordinator Sue has been meeting up with people 50+ in the Northwich area as part of the Brightlife Social Prescribing Scheme. Due to the impact of the pandemic, it has proved challenging to arrange social group meetings, but as soon as the opportunity arose Sue searched for a social place where her participants could meet whilst continuing to follow social distancing rules.

When the rule of six was brought in Sue found ways to bring people together in small groups. They included: meeting in a garden centre for afternoon tea; accompanying participants on a health walk with a local council Ranger, and she found an organic farm cafe with fabulous views that served takeaway drinks.

Sue was determined to keep in contact with her participants who had chosen to contact her due to feeling isolated, something that lockdowns and the pandemic have exasperated. “I would meet the group outside in the snow at Riverside Organic Farm as they were open offering take-away. I would also meet participants for a chat and a walk in the open air.”

A new social group evolved as Sue has brought her participants together to form the current ‘meet up’ group; they regularly meet up in local cafes, such as the Kanya Bistro and Weaver Vale Garden Centre.

“I am very proud of the participants who have attended the group, as some have suffered loss, but all have had the courage to get up, get out and start meeting new friends. They have gelled well, and I really feel lasting friendships have been made. They have enjoyed day trips together and some of them will keep in touch in-between meetings.”

Brightlife’s Social Prescribing Team supports people 50+ to become less lonely, make new friends, and maybe just rediscover themselves. Life can be complicated; physical and mental health can take their toll on our ability to do things we used to.


Blog by Sue Downham – Social Prescribing Co-ordinator

I am a Social Prescribing Co-ordinator and if you are not familiar with what I do, I support people 50+ to become less lonely, (ironic in these times), to rekindle old pastimes, to make new friends and maybe just to rediscover themselves.  Simple? Well, not as much as you may think.   Life can be complicated; physical and mental health can take their toll on our ability to do things that we used to.  There can be financial constraints also.  We may come across safeguarding issues. It’s a wonderful challenge having to find creative ways to support people to become happier within their individual circumstances. Add Covid 19 into the mix…. Then the big question is “How can me and my colleagues really make a difference during these constricted times?”

Lockdown and Me

I enjoy visiting people in their homes but obviously, this was not possible at the beginning. Initially, it was phone calls all the way.  My colleagues and I were keeping in touch through phone calls, text and virtual media. Before lockdown I was just in the throes of saying goodbye to working in one area and starting to build new relationships in another. Luckily  I had made waves in establishing myself at the other locality before 31st March, so have new clients all of which I have contacted but I also felt an obligation to support my former clients;  a few  I had not officially completed supporting,  others I knew did not have family close by and were shielding.  However this has been a   dilemma as it is impossible to keep in touch with such a large former caseload – and although I know people well, (in the old area) I still questioned my judgment when deciding who I was to contact and who I wasn’t.

Changing Feelings 

People were happy for me to call them. It was fairly light-hearted and most were philosophical. I asked about their welfare and if they had their needs being catered for;  signing them up for food deliveries working with various voluntary organisations, sending out information through the post and doing the odd food and prescription run myself (very excited to get out of the house to do this). But when the practicalities had been discussed, real feelings have unravelled and as time has gone on people have opened up, their time spent alone has enticed more reflection, and in-depth conversations have emerged. I have felt palpable anxiety in a few of my clients. It has been great to use the phone for communication but also to see individuals face to face. Colleagues at our partners DSN and the Brightlife team have put together Activity Packs for clients – some have been posted and some I have recently been able to hand-deliver (obviously observing social distancing rules).

I would like to share with you briefly just some of the diverse ways people have expressed their selves to me during this turbulent time.


Mr F aged 99 – remembered when he worked at Daresbury Hall at the age of 14 as a Gardeners Hand for Lord and Lady. The garden was laden with various fruits and he was told under no circumstances was he ever to help himself to the peaches off the tree – it was a sackable offence – well rules were made for breaking and today he can’t bear to look a peach in the eye.

What I learnt from Mr F was that the  Hall still stands today unoccupied albeit in a state of ruin but it recently had a new purpose as a Cannabis Farm – I asked if it had reopened for visits and could I have the address.


Sadly, two ladies, Mrs J (89) and Mrs P (76) who I have recently visited have both lost their husbands within the last year. It is still very raw for them, highlighted I am sure by hours spent with only their memories to comfort themselves with.  I found it hard not hold their hands or give them a hug when they became emotional as they so obviously needed it but we talked about their spouses;  the good times together and the laughter that they shared, what they did together, how they met.  Coincidentally they both met their husbands at a dance hall. What happened those wonderful days of Romance, Oh yes -replaced by Tinder!


Rape and abortion were the subjects of one of my meetings. A long way in the past for this lady who is in her 70’s but something she felt she wanted to share with me. I will leave it there as I am still in shock.


Ms B who 64 is so unhappy in her flat, she feels that she is being spied on. She also lives with enduring mental health issues and has missed coming to the social gatherings that I had previously organised (the only time she socialises).  She has clearly regressed as she brings up her past which has been peppered with such unhappiness, she had a lot of pent up anger and our meeting lifted the lid on the pressure cooker that had been bubbling unstirred.  We discussed getting together in a group when cafes start to open.  Like most people, I respect this lady immensely and she thanked me for having that respect which I am completely humbled by.


It is amazing what you can do with a pair of M&S knickers (other sources of lingerie are available). I had a step-by-step masterclass in mask-making using the aforementioned which were “cut at the crutch” and the elastic lace edging used for the earpieces. Genius! I was so disappointed when I met up with the lady creator who was not modelling said item.   She had forgotten but apparently, she is the envy of her apartment block.   We laughed and discussed amongst other subjects American Politics including Trump (an acceptable subject with this lady), American TV versus British, Veganism and where to get the best fish and chips. This wonderful person was once homeless, she has not been out of her flat for 3 months.


Mrs C’s daughter should have been married in June 2020. She is worried about putting on weight and not being able to fit into her outfit, but she has found a new way of keeping herself busy to avoid cake.   Before lockdown she was averse to anything IT and was not prepared to learn as she stated She was “too old”, which of course, was politely rejected by me. After a little encouragement from her reading group and some support from family and a little from me, she is now a Zoom Queen and loving it.  She meets every week with 2 of her groups that she normally attends. She has maintained that connection and has learnt a new skill and I can see in her eyes how pleased she is with herself.  Go Mrs C!


My Own Reflection

I was thinking about what makes a good Social Prescriber. I would normally go to mush if I was asked this in an interview situation but as it’s just us, I can only answer that by my own set of principles. Basically, I believe in the human race, that uniqueness and individuality should be celebrated and in the right for people to have opportunities. I have an innate drive to make people happy through listening and acting upon what they need and what they want; we all have dreams! People are fascinating. They can be unpredictable, but they can also be predictable, and it is their unpredictability to be predictable that also interests me (it makes sense in my head).

Image and perception can often veil truth but as a  Social Prescriber we get to see a person’s reality although it can be very challenging and sad at times, it is also a tremendous privilege. When I speak to people, I get totally immersed in their world.


Since I wrote my blog which covered my experiences from March onwards into the summer of 2020, I have found ways to bring people together in small groups of 6, they include: meeting in a garden centre for afternoon tea (sat outside in October sun); accompanying participants on a health walk with a local council Ranger; I organised a Christmas Lunch in a pub with an open marquee (throws and crackers provided); and found an organic farm cafe that serves takeaway drinks that I can still visit today with 1 other person who is feeling desperate to get out of their four walls and they can just take in the wonderful countryside views.  Of course, phone calls are still the main mode of contact and for those online, I am promoting other organisations activities and I am running some of my own.


Chris McClelland: Together Stronger: How Brightlife navigated (and survived!) the pandemic.



I am looking back at my calendar for January 2020.

I returned to work after a Christmas break; that post-Christmas period can be a strange time, a malaise in a slightly depressing mid-winter ‘fog’. Colleagues and partners gradually returning and the slow build up to the usual activity and busyness.


For Brightlife Cheshire, however, January 2020 was different, with an anticipated end date in March but with the unexpected opportunity of an uplift year for some parts of the project, there was much to do. We had the excitement of celebration events, meeting providers to harvest key learning, planning evaluation dissemination events, promoting our legacy with key partners, training local commissioners, refocusing our website to a legacy resource, preparing for our extended Social Prescribing project and so much more. It was also a time tinged with sadness knowing we had to prepare for saying goodbye to fantastic colleagues who could no longer be funded, leading to inevitable redundancy processes, as well as winding down our Partnership and wonderful Older Peoples Alliance.


Cut to January 2021 and I reflect on the incredible journey we have travelled in 12 months. As the pandemic emerged and began to take hold many of our plans fell by the wayside, planned activities were cancelled or placed on hold and the sudden evacuation from office base to home-working meant a brutal parting of the ways for some colleagues. Many of us anticipated a short break before returning to ‘normal’ working soon, but it was not to be. It would have been easy at this point to lose focus on our sense of purpose.


Thankfully, the raison d’etre that bonds Brightlife and all the Ageing Better programmes proved too strong a drive to allow circumstances to defeat us and, in that time, we have learned so much more than we expected about ourselves and our communities.

Here are my top learning messages from 2020:

  • The Team: resilient, resourceful, respectful, and reflective.  Brightlife staff team and volunteers are resilient in coping with adversity, resourceful in adapting their endeavours to support older people, respectful of the roles other partners can play and reflective in understanding their own/colleagues personal experiences and needs in navigating the pandemic professionally and personally. The team reached out to departing colleagues maintaining connections and friendships. Our team were proactive in pursuing self/career development and, with Partnership support, invested in numerous development activities. It is rewarding to see how this has supported people moving on from Brightlife progress into new and varied roles and taking the Brightlife legacy into new environments. One key message is that, despite adapting well to home working’ Teams and Zoom etc, we miss the vitality and creativity generated by mixing directly with colleagues and look forward to a time when we can do so again.


  • Providers with purpose: Brightlife commissioned 50 providers to deliver an extensive range of activities aimed at reaching many communities of geography and interest. Our provider contracts ended in March 2020 but so many of them have used their relationships with communities and their Brightlife learning to continue reaching out and finding new ways to support those most at risk of isolation. Many have been able to attract new funding sources. At the same time, we know of some providers struggling to continue through lack of funding, who have key staff furloughed to protect the stability of organisations and for some the challenges of providing activities without access to safe and cost-effective delivery environments has made their business model untenable. We will continue to keep in touch with providers and follow their sustainability journeys.


  • Volunteers; the human spirit: Brightlife has found that both existing and new volunteers have stepped up to the challenge of contributing at the time of greatest needs. Our Community Connectors providing telephone support, our Older Peoples Alliance members supporting a host of charities and initiatives, members of the public offering befriending, digital and other support; indeed, the opportunity to support people digitally has enabled volunteers to contribute where previously their circumstances did not allow.


  • Community Sector: a genuine collaboration. Prior to the onset of Covid-19, numerous voluntary sector organisations came together as a ‘Sector Leadership Group’ to look how they could work together more collaboratively. Brightlife was invited to join the group to provide its’ unique perspective. Setting aside naturally competitive instincts, the group set about building a new (‘Compact’) relationship with local authority and health partners, started to consider how the voice of their varying constituencies could be better heard and how best to make use of increasingly scarce resources. As the pandemic began to impact it was these organisations who were ready, willing, and able to immediately respond to the very urgent need for food, medicines, and individual support to their communities.


  • Statutory Partners – priorities in a pandemic. We do not underestimate the challenges faced by our health, social care and othe partners charged with responding to the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime. So many conflicting priorities to address have led to inevitable prioritisation; some activities have taken a lower profile than anticipated, including Age-friendly projects but the commitment to progress it remains. An early recognition of the role of the voluntary sector and involving representatives in key ‘cell’ meetings supported a whole community response and has facilitated the planning for a new ’Compact’ agreement. Commissioned providers have been encouraged to adapt delivery. NHS link workers and Brightlife Social Prescribers have continued to mutually identify, refer, and support older people.


  • Age UK Cheshire; a ‘Lead Body’ in every sense. AUKC quickly mobilised its resources, establishing ‘community response teams’ providing essential support even before official ‘Shield’ groups were identified. Brightlife integrated its’ support with this response and collectively we were able to reach out to both known and new individuals. Staff have adapted well to working remotely and digital inclusion for older people is high on the agenda. Age UK Cheshire CEO has provided leadership for the Sector Leadership Group ensuring the needs, views and rights of older people are constantly at the forefront. At the same time, Age UK Cheshire reflects the challenges faced by many local charities. Some funding streams have stalled, necessitating great prudence in budget management, remodelling of working practices and a constant quest for new funding sources. Brightlife has been fortunate to enjoy great support and encouragement from staff and trustees of the charity.


  • The National Lottery Community Fund. Test & Learn in practice.  What works in Cheshire may not be what works in Birmingham, Sheffield, or any other Ageing Better location. The trust and relationships built up between programme and Lottery staff has allowed Brightlife to evolve flexibly and adapt the programme to our local environment whilst contributing to the national Ageing Better story. The additional funding from 2020 to 2022 not only enables us to support more older people but to also gather and share greater evidence and to impose our legacy.


  • The future may be digital but there is a divide. Covide-19 has accelerated the use of digital technologies, for home working, service delivery, education, communication with friends and family, shopping etc. It is impressive to note how many older people have adapted to digital connectivity. It must still be recognised that many of the older people Brightlife connect with through Social Prescribing are anxious of the internet, lack IT confidence, are concerned about the cost of broadband and equipment and are fearful of scams. Most significantly we must emphasise the need/desire for safe, trusting voice to voice and face to face connections to alleviate their feelings of loneliness and experience of isolation.


  • Brightlife. Past and Present. Even the most experienced member of the Brightlife team or Partnership could never have anticipated how the final years of Brightlife would pan out. In the early days of the project, we struggled to find our rhythm and confidence. As we gained a collective belief, we have delivered high quality social prescribing, commissioned numerous imaginative projects, communicated the positive contribution of older people, supported great volunteers, engaged with communities, and evidenced our impact through robust data and evaluation. We have persisted and survived through the pandemic.


  • Brightlife the Future. We still have work to do, embedding Social Prescribing in new rural communities, gathering data, and sharing our evidence through Ageing Better and other networks, supporting Age-friendly and shouting out Brightlife values, beliefs, learning and legacy from the virtual rooftops of Cheshire West and Chester. Most of all we hope to have a year ahead when we can reconnect physically with our colleagues, communities and the people who live in them.


Chris McClelland


How groups help create purpose and structure - Chris McClelland

Ageing Better is exploring why groups are so important in tackling and helping buffer against feelings of loneliness and social isolation, and how to create groups which are really effective. You can read the national Ageing Better Groups Report here or the one page Groups Summary Snapshot

We hope you find these resources helpful and that you’ll share them across your teams and with anyone (for example Link Workers or Social Prescribers) working with groups to help reduce social isolation.

As the national learning from the past 5 years of delivery from across all 14 Ageing Better areas is published, we’ve spoken to some of our commissioned services in Cheshire West to find out more about how the model of delivery is being adapted during this time of Covid-19.

I think one of the things we’re most pleased about at Brightlife is knowing that we (all be it unwittingly) helped to set up networks of connections, friendships and support that became invaluable lifelines for those shielding during lockdown.

One such group is the NeuroMuscular Centre’s Connect Up project – a thriving online community with many diverse activities such as crafts, reading, crosswords, poetry and fishing – when allowed.  Most of these groups were already up and running pre-pandemic and are very user led (whilst also including staff and volunteers).

The Read and Connect book club lent itself perfectly to moving exclusively to virtual during lockdown – it already had an online strand via Facebook for those who couldn’t attend which made it seamless. The only hitch was not being able to get to the library but books are easy to source on e-readers so it wasn’t too much of an obstacle. With a fixed deadline for finishing the books, the group provided a sense of purpose and structure, as well as a degree of companionship. It also encouraged those interested in poetry to start a spin off group which opened up new avenues of learning and social connections.

The craft group surpassed itself by raising thousands for the charity through making masks amongst other things. It’s been so successful it decided to create an online Christmas stall. Aside from the funds raised, they get a huge sense of satisfaction and joy that others value their handiwork.

Obviously the more hands on social groups such as fishing couldn’t continue during lockdown but, as an accessible venue which really understood their needs had already been set up, the NMC was able to organise a couple of day trips in August and September. The group was able to socially distance around a big lake while making new friendships and learning new skills.

In August, the NMC made use of its large meadow as a safe place for first trips out post shielding which enabled physical meetings with friends and potential friends. Groups of up to five came to enjoy the space which the NMC said was a real highlight of the year. Friendships were made and rekindled and it gave everyone a huge lift.

All the groups have served as an essential checkpoint for those who might have struggled with the isolation during the pandemic. Being able to share with others how you’re getting on and what you’re going through has been hugely important for NMC community.

Testimonials from group members:

I have thoroughly enjoyed and valued the virtual company of others in the NMC Community. I feel I have got to know people a lot more during lockdown through general chatter, cooking, and gardening club. It’s made me really appreciate my garden and I have loved taking photos of all the plants and flowers during this time. Massive thanks to everyone who has worked so hard to keep the NMC Virtual Community going.”

“I’ve also loved learning about other people’s passions and hobbies – I get a buzz from others joy and enthusiasm and it’s encouraged me to try out a few new hobbies or research new topics too.”


For more information about the work of NMC, this short film takes you behind the scenes at the Neuromuscular Centre

The NeuroMuscular Centre was one of 50 providers commissioned by Brightlife.  You can read the ‘Read and Connect’

Summary Report here.  Brightlife will continue to track their progress following the impact of COVID-19. 01606 860911/861799

Loneliness blog - by Christine McMahon

It struck me this week how mainstream TV presenters are all talking about the impact of social isolation and loneliness on people’s health and mental wellbeing as one of the main consequences of Covid-19.

People can become very lonely when isolating from their communities and families. We are told this is the ‘new normal’. But for many, feelings of loneliness have been the everyday normal for many years.

When I first started working at Brightlife, you would rarely hear loneliness being discussed on Breakfast TV or lifestyle programmes… because only a few years ago, there was still a stigma around saying you felt lonely … as if you were attention-seeking or partly to blame (particularly for the older generation who were brought up to just ‘get on with it’).

But if any good has come out of this pandemic it is a new understanding around loneliness; that it is a serious health issue that requires professional, person-centred support.

I’m also beginning to appreciate how all the work we’ve been doing at Brightlife for the past 5 years is now helping people understand the mental challenges of the pandemic.

There’s still a lot of research going on to understand the ‘internal’ experience of loneliness as outlined in the Campaign to End Loneliness Report The Psychology of Loneliness: why it matters and what we can do. This has never been more relevant. If people can understand and identify their negative thoughts and feelings (which become overwhelming over time) and focus on positive psychology, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, the risk of loneliness is reduced.  

Nobody should ever suffer alone. There is support out there and if people are feeling lonely, they should reach out to professionals, family, friends and community.  With the support of the Campaign to End Loneliness, Age UK Cheshire, Silver Sunday, Cheshire West and Chester Council and with funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, Brightlife continues to support people out of loneliness.

We do understand how you are feeling and we can help you.  So please get in touch.