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How pharmacies and voluntary organisations are tackling social isolation among older people

29th October 2018

Lydia Shellien-Walker from Ageing Better in Camden explains how they are tackling social isolation and loneliness among older people by drawing on existing skills and resources in the local community as one of fourteen national Big Lottery Fund Ageing Better programmes.

“In October 2015, Ageing Better in Camden undertook a two year project which saw thirteen pharmacies in the borough commissioned to identify older people who were lonely or isolated and refer them to a Camden Community Connector.  Community Connectors help local residents who are over 60 engage with their local community by discussing their interests, finding activities which may suit them and supporting them to help others connect with their community.

We have learnt a lot from the work undertaken, with the initiative highlighting both the challenges and opportunities presented when thinking about how local pharmacies can play an important role as social connectors. We are pleased to now be able to share our learning with other organisations looking to do similar projects.

In the first year, the project experienced a slow start with only 25 referrals from the assigned thirteen pharmacies. Feedback was quickly gathered and the project was assessed and relaunched. 

Following the re-launch, Year 2 of the project saw the introduction of a scratch card.  The scratch card was designed to help pharmacies allow older people to walk through the referral process themselves, self-selecting what local activities and community initiatives interested them. This was introduced to support pharmacies in terms of not needing to engage in a longer conversation but also because our learning from Year 1 showed people were reluctant to discuss personal issues in a busy pharmacy. 

The scratch card clearly had an impact as Year 2 was a lot more successful with 100 referrals made. However, people did not always include their contact details making it impossible for Community Connectors to contact them and we found that of the total referrals received in the project’s second year only 3% were successful in connecting an older client to a community project or activity.  One explanation for this was that there were a large number of older people accessing services in the thirteen pharmacies who lived outside of the borough and therefore could not be referred to a Community Connector.  This was particularly the case for those pharmacies near a Camden hospital.

Most pharmacies have lots of patient and public information leaflets available.  We also found that due to this the Ageing Better in Camden message often got lost alongside a number of other relevant leaflets. To tackle this we introduced Ageing Better in Camden branded boxes which enabled pharmacy staff to start conversations about social isolation and loneliness and more easily direct people to our information leaflets. This certainly helped and pharmacies told us that many customers took leaflets and information for friends or family, rather than associating the project with themselves. 

On the whole, engagement levels from the thirteen pharmacies across Camden were varied. With the pharmacy business being competitive and challenging, our project was perhaps understandably often overlooked as an ‘add on’. A key learning for us going forward with any further engagement work is to be mindful that a ‘one size fits all approach’ does not work due to different management styles, available time, space and staff in individual pharmacies. 

Fundamentally though, local pharmacies are an important part of the local community as both a business and the community face of the health system. This project showed that pharmacies play an important role as social connectors at a community level with local community groups and centres.

However, trying to commission social connection at a borough level by mirroring health service commissioning of interventions such as smoking cessation, ignored the primary rationale of pharmacies as being healthcare providers, and was not successful. Rolling out social connection pharmacies at a borough level requires a development worker to build the relationships between community groups and their individual local pharmacies to be successful. 

In this sense, local community groups and centres are best trying to build links with pharmacies on an individual level to promote healthy living activities and to encourage a free flow of opportunities within the local community, from flu jabs to Tai Chi classes.

If you’d like to find out more, read the full report, or ask any questions, we are keen to hear from you. Contact Ageing Better in Camden or follow us on Twitter to find out what we’re learning or to get a copy of the report.”


About the author

Lydia Shellien-Walker is the Communications and Influencing Officer for the Big Lottery Funded Ageing Better in Camden programme. Ageing Better in Camden is a partnership of older people and Camden organisations, working together to tackle social isolation and loneliness among older people in the borough. They use an assets-based approach, drawing on existing skills and resources in the local community and supporting community groups to co-design and co-produce programmes with older members. As one of the fourteen Big Lottery Fund Ageing Better programmes working across England, Ageing Better in Camden is committed to testing new approaches to tackling social isolation and sharing what they learn.

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