Kate’s Grand Tour Part 4: Farewell Belgium

This last instalment of our PI Kate’s travel blog covers her last day in Belgium in April 2022, the final stop of a ‘grand tour’ in which Kate met members of the community through various meetings, lunches and gatherings. Sadly, the popular singer Kate mentions below – Juul Kabas – has since died unexpectedly. You can read a tribute to Juul here. 

On Wednesday it’s time to meet the Mayor of Laakdal, Tine Gielis, and Alderman Gerda Broeckx. Gerda has specific oversight of HAIRE and is keen to hear about progress and successes, of which there are many. We meet for lunch with a group of older people who gather regularly for a subsidised meal and conversation. The atmosphere is very convivial.

The Mayor, Alderman, Laakdal Team and I discuss the familiar issues of community engagement, encouraging younger volunteers and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. We also explore how new models of service design and delivery can bring together the public sector and the local community groups and volunteers. I also meet Freddie, Laakdal’s Super Volunteer, who does a great deal in his community. He is part of HAIRE and has conducted several Guided Conversations. Stalwarts like Freddie can be found in every community, and are greatly valued.

My last day in Belgium sees me attending the Seniors’ Party, a twice-yearly event which, pre-Covid, used to attract 600 older people from the municipality for entertainment, drinks and a sandwich lunch. About 250 people attend this lunch, seated at long tables set out in a sports hall decorated with fairy lights around the walls. There is a stage, lighting and an impressive sound system. Alderman Gerda Broeckx makes a speech about HAIRE. The entertainment is provided by Juul Kabas who sings popular sing-along classics and gets everyone clapping. Freddie is also volunteering at this event and tells me that Juul was badly affected during lock down, unable to do shows. Juul signs off his set with the phrase “If you lose your smile, you lose your heart”. The Seniors’ Party was a model of community action, with everyone working hard to create a joyous atmosphere.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to East Sussex and Belgium. I met people who I have only previously met over Teams, and I relished seeing them in action at the various events I attended. Everyone worked hard to make me welcome, which I really appreciated. There’s amazing work going on in our pilot sites and I am really looking forward to a few more trips before the project ends in March 2023. A huge THANK YOU to everyone involved in planning and making this trip a reality.

Kate’s Grand Tour Part 3: Training in Adjacent Areas

One of the objectives of our project is to extend the use of the HAIRE toolkit beyond the borders of our pilot areas. Kate’s visit to Laakdal (one of our pilot sites) included training new volunteers in the village of Bergom in the neighbouring municipality of Herselt. This region is a good example of how the toolkit can be customised to suit the community it is used in. Assisted dying is legal in Belgium, and the toolkit needed to include training volunteers in conversations about end of life. This is the third of four short blogs about Kate’s visit to Belgium in April, 2022.

On my second full day in Belgium, myself and the local project team (Katien, Sophie and Severine) train Jill Van der Auwera from the neighbouring municipality of Herselt, which comprises the villages of Herselt proper, Ramsel, Blauberg, Bergom and Varenwinkel. The sat nav takes me to an empty field about 5k from our meeting point. Thank goodness for Google Maps.  

We meet in a community hall in a small village surrounded by farmland and forests. This area feels more remote than Vorst, with more small, scattered settlements. The team in Laakdal – including the volunteers – will help to train professionals and volunteers in Herselt in the next few weeks. The issues that face their older community – especially the rising cost of living – are very familiar. We incorporate the insights from Laakdal’s volunteers into the session, which really helps with the practical aspects of applying the HAIRE toolkit elsewhere. After our session, we walk through the quiet, neat village to the magnificent Catholic Church with its lofty, modern interior and high, vaulted wooden ceiling.  In the evening, I drive to Bergom to attend the training of volunteers in conversations about end of life. This is a particular focus for Herselt and an issue for which they have adapted their Guided Conversations. Although the training is in Flemish, I keep up with the slides by putting a few key phrases from each into Google Translate. The training covers why and how we should talk about and prepare for the end of life along with useful case studies. Assisted dying is legal in Belgium, so some of the training is about that. A new model of palliative care is presented which introduces elements of palliative care alongside continuing treatment in a more gradual way. This breaks down the cure/care dualism in which only when the search for a cure ends does palliative care begins. Instead, this model seeks to open up the conversation about the journey towards the end of life more gradually and in a supportive and empathic way. It is a moving and very productive session.

 

Kate’s Grand Tour, Part 2 of 4: Arriving in Laakdal, Belgium

Professor Catherine (Kate) Leyshon, our Principal Investigator, was able to travel for the first time since our project launch in early 2020. She referred to her trip as the “Grand Tour”! We asked her to write about her journey to East Sussex and subsequent visit to Laakdal in Belgium, and give us a writerly flavour of what those places look and feel like, since we’ve been unable to visit. Here’s part two: her first glimpse of Laakdal. More to follow!

I arrive on the Eurostar in Brussels and pick up a hire car for the drive to Diest, the town where I am staying about 25 minutes away from the municipality of Laakdal, in the province of Antwerp. The municipality comprises the towns of Eindhout, Veerle, Vorst, Varendonk and Vorst-Meerlaar, all of which are involved with HAIRE. Diest is a pretty, well-kept town with narrow cobbled streets and new buildings tastefully blended into its historic town-centre. I take a walk up through a leafy park and back through the town square, lined with canopied restaurants where diners are enjoying the warm spring evening.

The next day, I drive to Vorst in Laakdal. Initially my car’s sat nav wants to take me to Vorst near Brussels but I realise this is in completely the wrong direction! I drive out of Diest and I’m quickly into the flat, farmed landscape of this part of Belgium. The road is straight and quiet. As I reach Vorst, I notice how quiet and tidy it is. We are meeting in the fantastic Gemeentehuis. Recently constructed and serving the whole municipality, it contains the library, a post office, meeting rooms, the only bank machine in town and some local council functions.

I meet four volunteers who have some fascinating insights into their experience of using the HAIRE toolkit. They are very generous with their knowledge, and – with a retired Alderman amongst their number – we have an in-depth discussion about new models of service design and delivery. The issues in this part of rural Belgium are familiar across the project: people growing older sometimes become less confident and stop going out as much. They become isolated and suffer some consequences to their overall wellbeing. The Guided Conversation has helped to reconnect them to the community. The partners are especially looking forward to taking ownership of a new minibus; transport here is very limited – it’s no surprise that getting around is a problem in all our pilot sites.

The Latest News from Poperinge

The following article, translated from the Dutch, appeared in the local publication, Stadskrant (“the City Newspaper”), in Poperinge, Belgium in February, 2022, informing local citizens of the work undertaken so far by Poperinge’s HAIRE team.

Poperinge is a partner in the HAIRE project, which stands for Healthy Ageing through Innovation in Rural Europe. The project aims to improve the wellbeing of seniors in Poperinge and its sub-municipalities, and to break through isolation and loneliness in the countryside. Numerous volunteers and professionals in healthcare have been involved in the project.

75 people over sixty were interviewed in Poperinge and smaller surrounding areas. The interviews mapped out the wellbeing of each participant, and allowed the drawing up of an individual action plan. The interviews are also part of a developing ‘community report’, with suggestions for all kinds of areas for improvement for the neighbourhood. Wellbeing is a word that is important in everyone’s life and at every age; meaningful and fun activities for the elderly help create a positive community atmosphere.

Four volunteers from Nestor services, the Local Service Center De Bres, WZC Huize Proventier and the Social Service went out with an extensive questionnaire asking about general well-being, what seniors think of their neighbourhood, what activities can be organized to help them age better and how everyone can benefit from this. A number of questions about the individual’s social network were also discussed.

The interviews lasted one and a half to two hours. The interviewee could choose from telephone or face to face sessions in person to complete the survey. Of course, all safety measures regarding coronavirus were observed during personal visits. Participation was entirely without obligation and participants were able to choose between a thank you gift voucher of 20 euros or two free meals delivered to the home by WZC Huize Proventier.

“Although I was armed with a mouth mask, safety screen and hand sanitiser, I was warmly welcomed everywhere by the fifteen interviewees despite Covid,” says Luc, who is 68 years old and volunteers at Local Services Center De Bres and WZC Huize Proventier. “Many older people found it a pity that services such as banks, post offices and shops are disappearing from their local areas. It’s vital for them that the city invests in basic services like neighbourhood salons or shops, which then become the beating heart of the village.”

MEANINGFUL ACTIVITIES

The person-centred topics in the survey addressed the emotional well-being of the seniors. It emerged that they need a listening ear for emotional problems and for things that are not going well in the specific care of older people. An effort is needed to enable more people to grow old with good mental health and well-being. Luc clarifies: “Participation in meaningful activities such as volunteering, culture promotion, computer education and in some cases staying longer at work are here clearly reflected in the answers.” Concerns about caring for later, dementia and early care planning were also discussed. Many seniors want to age actively. “Local cooperation is of great importance. It is important to gain insight into loneliness in all its aspects. Everything starts with making contacts. As a result, all of a senior citizens’ associations, including community workers, the police and the postman, are of great importance,” said Luc.

TO STAY INFORMED

Regular contacts with neighbours, friends, family and caregivers are crucial. Luc concludes: “On average, we noticed an increase in the number of relatives in the social network of seniors, but at the same time a decrease in the number of non-relatives. As you get older, your world becomes smaller. People around you die or become less mobile, so that they disappear from your social network. It is important that the seniors are provided with resources so they can stay informed and be involved in the world around them.”

You can read the article in its original language below:

Crossborder Recipes: The HAIRE Christmas Party 2021

Season’s Greetings! After nearly two years of working together throughout the Covid pandemic, the team has still not managed to meet up in person since the project launch in early 2020. At the end of 2021, plans for our first face to face gathering were once again thwarted by the emergence of Omicron, but we are still finding ways to connect with each other on a personal level despite everything. To celebrate the season, the HAIRE team got together virtually to share their favourite family recipes from each of our four countries: the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Such was the response we decided to make our own HAIRE recipe book, featuring tasty dips and snacks, desserts and treats from across the 2Seas region. Below are a few highlights …bon appetit!

Kaat’s Appelbol (The Netherlands)