Social prescribing, and the path to inclusivity

By Gigi Eligoloff

Can social prescribing be the answer to a more personalised and inclusive support system for everyone, old or young?

I began my week asking myself how our society had arrived at a place where everyone felt so very separate from their neighbours. And, being a bit of an idealist, I then started imagining a new way for people to support their neighbours (and make the world a much nicer, friendlier, kinder place). There could be a way, I reasoned, in which wise, skilled and eager people with a little bit of time on their hands can be put safely in contact with other people who would benefit from these ‘natural resources’.

I was thinking particularly about the wealth of experience and wisdom us older adults might be able to share, but equally of any other energetic and eager member of the community who might be looking for a way to be ‘useful’. Everyone would benefit from such a scheme. The helpers and the helped benefiting everyone from the disconnected, the stressed out and all of those with little or no support networks.

On a mission, I began sharing my idea with a friend, ‘Oh’ she said, ‘that’s a little like Social Prescribing!’ Intrigued, I thought I should find out more. Hattie Edmonds is a passionate advocate of social prescribing and explains what it is, and how she got involved.

Hattie Edmonds, 58.

“I first read about Social Prescribing in the best seller ‘Recovery’, a beautiful book about the healing power of community and the arts by the Scottish GP Gavin Francis. It makes so much sense.

“Instead of prescribing anti-depressants for those experiencing grief, social isolation, stress and anxiety, many doctors and healthcare workers now look for local projects, often involving the arts, and if possible in green spaces, to bring patients together to do creative projects while sharing their experiences.”

— Hattie Edmonds

“As I read it, I realised that, like many people, I’d been doing small acts of Social Prescribing for a while. For me it started with Mrs Kanji, a delightfully quirky 80-year old housebound lady, who taught me how to chop a semi-frozen salmon head in half with an axe (albeit only a small axe), before toasting the head, because she believed it contained the most nutritional fish oils. After getting her lunchtime fix of Omega 3, 6 and 9, we would animatedly discuss the book we’d both read over the previous week. What made it such a great story? Why did we fall in love with the main character? Would we have written a different ending? In fact, it was one of those books ‘Testimony of Light’ that gave me the idea for my first novel.

Since then, I have worked on projects for teenagers excluded from mainstream education, I’ve waitressed at a restaurant for the homeless and I’ve shared meditation practices with end-of-life patients at my local hospice. I’ve recently started offering creative writing sessions in a community garden for patients referred by the nearby NHS practice. And as with all the other projects, it’s an absolute joy.

“The simple act of gathering together, being creative (whether that’s writing, drawing, singing or simply sharing our stories) evokes a deeply nourishing feeling of connection and belonging, and of being part of something bigger than myself.”

— Hattie Edmonds

And it takes me out of my own head which is always a massive relief! Given what we’ve all experienced over the past two years, I think we all now know the true value of these gifts”.

Social prescribing is part of the NHS Long Term Plan’s commitment to produce a more personalised care business across the health and care system.  Using specialised Link Workers the scheme is all about making and encouraging positive, meaningful connections for individuals. Maybe we may at last have found an approach which can provide the antidote to the endless, and not particularly healthy culture of individualism by encouraging more of us to connect to our communities?

“At last it feels like someone has joined the dots and started looking at the cause, rather than the symptoms”.

— Gigi Eligoloff

One of the aims of social prescribing is of course to take some of the strain off the NHS, in particular GPs who often see people who don’t need a medical diagnosis, just some time, care and practical support.

“One in five GP appointments focus on wider social needs, rather than acute medical issues”.

Healthy London Partnership

With more focus on our communities this could prove to be the first steps to future proofing for a more inclusive and multi-generational approach. As long as social prescribing doesn’t fall into the trap of pigeon-holing older adults as only recipients, this is an exciting approach for everyone to be useful and make connections.

Older adults are of course far more likely to be altruistic, and social prescribing offers a unique way to get involved in our communities. The benefits also go both ways since studies have again and again shown that the more useful we feel, the longer and healthier we age.  Maybe when we (one day) move to that four day week, there can be the caveat that the fifth day might be free to invest a couple of hours towards helping others,  Sharing your time in any way you can, and making the most of our experience and resources built over decades. It might be free legal advice, or a spot of gardening, plumbing or even taking part in a weekly choir meeting. What a beautiful and perhaps slightly smaller, kinder world we could build.

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