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People walking in city centre

Communities, coronavirus and creative solutions?

Leeds has an ambition to be the best city to grow old in. This is how the Leeds Neighbourhood Network is helping.

Guest blogger and author of our new report, Melanie Henwood writes about the Leeds Neighbourhood Network, a city-wide network that helps support local older people.

When the UK locked down on March 23 in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, there were many unknowns, but not least what it would mean for people (particularly older people) normally reliant on services and support to maintain their everyday lives. What has happened in the more than three months since is still a matter of some speculation, and there will undoubtedly be both ‘winners’ and ‘losers'.

The closure of community centres, lunch clubs and day opportunities would – at a stroke – have shut down the horizons for many people. Instead of being able to punctuate the week’s routine with regular social contact and interaction, many people found their lives becoming solitary and tightly bounded by the four walls of home. In addition, for those people aged over 70 and others who were asked to ‘shield’ because of medical conditions and vulnerability to the virus, the situation was even more constrained by advice to stay at home and minimise contact with others.

There have been many reports in the media of communities stepping up, forming mutual aid groups and providing support to help people shielding or isolating at home. Similarly, there was a massive national recruitment campaign of ‘NHS Volunteers’ to deliver food and medicine to people at home, and to offer telephone befriending to reduce isolation and loneliness.

Early evidence from the first four weeks of lockdown, examining receipt by people aged over 70 of help from family, neighbours or friends, provides some reassurance that “the majority of older people received support from the broader community (…) neighbours and friends have played an essential role in providing support to this vulnerable group”. Alongside this optimistic picture, however, there is also evidence that older people with difficulties in performing key activities of daily living, faced a higher risk of receiving less care and support during lockdown “raising the spectre that some older people are not receiving adequate social care.”

The Leeds Neighbourhood Networks are an integral part of the Leeds ambition to be the best city to grow old in...

What factors might contribute to the well-coordinated operation of care and health services, together with local community and voluntary sector resources, and create positive opportunities for development during the challenges posed by living with the pandemic? It seems likely that local authorities with well-developed relationships with community and third sector organisations, and a focus on strengths and asset-based approaches, would be better placed to respond to the extraordinary demands of COVID-19.

One example is the model developed in Leeds, where the Leeds Neighbourhood Networks (LNNs) have a long history. The LNNs provide a city-wide network through 37 community bodies that exist to support local older people, and specifically to:

  • Tackle loneliness and social isolation
  • Deliver a range of health and well-being activities
  • Support older people to be aware of and access other services
  • Directly involve older people in oversight and delivery of the service

The LNNs are an integral part of the Leeds ambition to be the best city to grow old in, and the best for health and wellbeing, where the poorest people improve their health the fastest.

A similar approach has been developed by Birmingham City Council, and in both cities the Neighbourhood Networks are evolving and responding within the new conditions imposed by the coronavirus. Building on community assets and resources at this time will be especially important given the pressures facing health and care services. The latest report from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) has highlighted the “all-consuming nature of the COVID-19 pandemic” and its impact on people needing care and support. Councils have made use of volunteers and community resources to supplement services.

The Centre for Ageing Better was already working with Leeds to evaluate the Neighbourhood Networks, and the approach has been adapted to allow careful evaluation to be undertaken while the coronavirus is currently impacting communities, focusing specifically on the COVID-19 response and the strategic fit with the wider Leeds response. Understanding the response, and mapping how it contributes to recovery from crisis, will be vital in identifying and nurturing the factors associated with building and maintaining community resilience.

Simply the Best? Making Leeds the Best City to Grow Old In

Read the report