Kindness and Coronavirus: Building Relationships using HAIRE

This article was first published on the University of Exeter’s Research and Innovation blog on 20th October, 2020. 

HAIRE (Healthy Aging through Innovation in Rural Europe) is an Interreg 2Seas funded project, which commenced on 1st Jan 2020.  The project is a partnership of 14 Local Authorities, academic institutions and voluntary and community service organisations. Partners are located in the United Kingdom (UK), France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and the University of Exeter’s Social Innovation Group (SIG), based at its Penryn Campus, UK, is the project’s lead partner. Overall, the HAIRE partnership is collaborating, co-designing and testing a person-centred, place-based toolkit, recruiting volunteers to join service providers in supporting people over 60 in rural and often isolated communities.

Before Covid-19 hit, there were already global concerns about rising levels of loneliness, particularly among older people, which is what HAIRE was designed to tackle. With increased levels of isolation, fear, local lockdowns and a second wave of the virus well underway in Europe, HAIRE’s plan to harness the power of volunteers and community kindness has become more relevant than ever. The project is all about building connections and relationships so that communities are empowered to make change.

One of our partners, East Sussex County Council, led a series of online talks with the public through September and October as part of a digital Healthy Ageing Festival. These talks provided a platform for people to share their thoughts on aspects of healthy ageing and community action at a time when the awareness of what communities can do is at its height. In all our partner countries, we have seen a significant rise in voluntary, local authority and community action. The HAIRE project’s toolkit has been developing alongside the Covid-19 response in our eight pilot sites, and its use has been started early in some locations because of its relational approach.

Our colleagues in Le Nord, France, telephoned every person over 60 living in their region during the lockdown period to check on their wellbeing and to track their needs. The parish of Feock, Cornwall, UK, saw 150 volunteers come forward to help their fellow villagers. According to the Carnegie Trust, 20% of the UK population were giving between two to four hours a week helping people cope with the pandemic during the emergency phase – going shopping and picking up prescriptions, or talking to older people over the phone so they had some human contact during months of isolation.

The levels of voluntary participation have naturally subsided as people have gone back to work, reverted to old or taken up new responsibilities, but Covid has reminded many of what’s important. We’ve had no difficulties recruiting “HAIRE Enablers” – these are the volunteers who will go out and have Guided Conversations with older people to understand their needs and service desires. Our colleagues in Feock have had a 50% over-recruitment of volunteer HAIRE Enablers, exceeding expectations. East Sussex is also ready to go forward with its brand new team of HAIRE Enablers. As the project relies a great deal on the goodwill of volunteers, this is good news.

Early action was taken in the Netherlands too. During lockdown, social workers were enthusiastic about trying one of HAIRE’s tools, the Guided Conversation, ahead of schedule. The Social Work and Welfare Foundation Eastern Scheldt Region (SMWO) is a broad welfare institution in the Netherlands that provides services in the fields of social work, welfare and sports and exercise. Their social workers went out to talk to people using the Guided Conversation tool predominantly via telephone and, where possible, in person. They felt that doing the conversations strengthened their network in the community and made their position stronger. The project has helped SMWO and the social workers to renew their connections in the community. Their activities have over the years moved away from establishing individual contact to overseeing general service delivery, meaning less interpersonal contact. With the Guided Conversations they renewed relations with individuals and gained new insights into the community. This has been an important impact of HAIRE.

The Guided Conversation’s key strength is that it is a social tool. For example, one of our partners in France, Unis-Cité, works to link younger and older people through a variety of intergenerational programmes. The HAIRE project team has linked up young people with over-60s to begin a social relationship and build trust. This trust will be key in completing Guided Conversations where older adults can openly talk about what is important to them. In order to reach these objectives, the volunteers visit older people who feel lonely every week. They do whatever the elderly participant feels able to: chatting, going out, taking part in “allowed” activities and even meeting new people. They also help elderly people who have difficulties with the internet or their computer – an increasingly important means of connection in Covid times.

Most importantly, HAIRE’s Guided Conversation is not a finished tool – it is evolving, organic, responsive to individuals and their places and uses a variety of techniques to elicit responses. We are learning as we go, but in every instance, nurturing an individual relationship is key to its success. In Laakdal, Belgium, one of our partners tested the Guided Conversation outdoors with two elderly participants who were good friends. With a Duvel in hand (a typical Belgian beer), they were encouraged to talk about themselves. Both participants agreed they learnt things about each other as a result. They reflected on life’s strains during the pandemic. All activities for elderly people have been taken away and the Guided Conversation was “the most fun they’d had in months.” Indeed, the tool itself not only helps to unpick unmet needs and identify potential solutions, it is a means of connection in and of itself – an antidote to the isolation that Covid-19 can bring.

Neighbourhood Analysis: Research in a Tea Garden

The Neighbourhood Analysis is one of the three tools being used in HAIRE to help us understand healthy ageing in rural places. The University of Exeter research team were able to visit a local pilot site in Feock parish and listen to what people had to say.

Feock’s neighbourhood analysis took place outdoors in Linden Hey Garden Tea Room in August. Linden Hey has been an important meeting place for people in the Feock parish, and for that reason might well provide a future site for other activities and meet ups. We were able to safely social distance, with three round tables at which community members were seated.

It’s a beautiful setting, and during the session we were joined by small birds, mostly robins, flying in and out of the garden. In one session, a vole even peeped out at us. We talked about the neighbourhood as we drank tea from red and gold floral china cups and ate lemon drizzle cake made by the owner of the tea garden (there may or may not have been scones with cream and jam. Local tip: jam first in Cornwall!)

Feock’s HAIRE Project Co-ordinator and Administration Assistant, Bex and Esther, put the session together. Bex put a flip chart on the glass windows of the cafe and the analysis began. This is a tool developed by our Dutch partners at Solidarity University and will be used by all the pilot sites in the HAIRE project. It involves the creation of a “rich picture” in words through brainstorming and mapping the neighbourhood. People were asked to talk about:

  • Local people who share knowledge, skills, experiences, offerings and expertise with others in the parish,
  • Physical elements of the community such as community buildings and meeting rooms where activities take place and where people organise gatherings and meetings,
  • Networks in which people can communicate in a less formal manner and the physical places where people can meet to discuss local problems and challenges,
  • Collaborative forms of organisation and local partnerships connecting the community and its members – for example, connections promoting and supporting positive change,
  • Associations, community groups, recreational groups, clubs, tenant organisations, and other services run by institutions, such as schools, health centres, general practitioners and emergency services,
  • Economic connections in the community, including local companies, business leaders and entrepreneurs, such as supermarkets, local shops and tourism related companies,
  • Identifying important places, traditions, and activities that are of cultural meaning to the community, and
  • History and heritage, including places and stories of particular local interest as well as past processes, plans, and efforts in community development.

There are many individuals who support others in the parish of Feock already. The trust and relationships within the community are important to recognise. This exercise helped us gain an understanding into these relationships as well. Questions and comments flowed, and during a break, people asked more questions about the project and chatted about local planning, who was moving into the area and other local issues.

The resources collated during the sessions will be used and and built on during the rest of the project. The information collated will provide a useful starting point to link and support, wherever possible, individuals to activities, groups and organisations they may not have been aware of and identify venues or spaces that may be appropriate for new activities, groups and organisations.

We continue to learn so much about our pilot sites from the communities themselves. It is an integral part of making sure that any innovation, new product or service is relevant, because it will come from the very people it is designed to serve.

 

Cross-border cooperation in action: early use of the HAIRE tool in the Netherlands

    

This month our research partner Kim Boes of Solidarity University describes the adaptation of the HAIRE tool in the Netherlands in the context of COVID-19.

The Social Work and Welfare Foundation Eastern Scheldt Region (SMWO) is a broad welfare institution in the Netherlands that provides services in the fields of social work, welfare and sports and exercise. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, SMWO social workers in Goes, a HAIRE pilot site, felt the urgent need to stay in contact with elderly and vulnerable people using our Guided Conversation technique. A vital component of the HAIRE toolkit, the Guided Conversation is a person-centred tool using a variety of different prompts and imagery that allows people to reflect on their own needs, desires, interests and aspirations, so it is ideally suited to getting to the heart of what matters to people at this extraordinary time.

Training in how to use the HAIRE toolkit is planned across the partnership for autumn, but the team decided to move this process forward and let social workers in Goes use the Guided Conversation tool for the contact moments they already had planned with elderly and vulnerable people. An English-language version of the Guided Conversation had been developed with the input of all partners, but it was vital to ensure it was adapted for the current Dutch context, so we worked in close collaboration with the social workers at SMWO, since they know their community best.

By the end of May, we decided to start testing the Guided Conversation. Three social workers from SMWO were going to interview three people each in June. In early July we planned a feedback session to discuss their experiences. We were very pleased with the results. We decided the social workers would continue using the Guided Conversation over the summer since they felt these conversations really support the work they are doing. The social workers felt the Guided Conversation tool helped them get to know the participants’ needs very well, and both interviewer and participant were enthusiastic about using it:

“It was very nice and interesting to do the interviews.” (Social worker)

“It’s amazing how open people are in those conversations. Lovely conversations arise!” (Social worker)

We discussed the social workers’ first experiences and reviewed where things needed to change in the Guided Conversation as well as what aspects should be covered in the autumn training sessions. One important thing to consider further is the dependency relationship between social workers and the participant, meaning that as they get to know each other more, there is a risk that they will worry personally about each other. There is a need to make sure all volunteers have appropriate support and have clear boundaries – this is something that social work organisations have built into their practice, and we will need to ensure the volunteers are protected throughout the HAIRE network as the study moves forward.

Other partners are hoping to start working with Guided Conversations as early as they can. Our Belgian partners in Poperinge and Laakdal expressed their wish to start using the Guided Conversation tool in their communities and asked us to share our experiences with them. We have been knowledge-sharing with them as well as with our lead partner, the University of Exeter. As a result, Poperinge and Laakdal are looking into using our test version, which will need mildly adjusting to the Belgian context. We decided to have another experience-sharing session once they have conducted some Guided Conversations. This is also important for us since their experience could again help us in developing our toolkit.

The conversation is always open between all the partners as we develop and refine HAIRE’s Guided Conversation. The more they are tested and used, the more we discover how to really make the tool work best for the participants. The head start to the programme means that the learning can be incorporated into the Train the Trainers programme planned for September, and the stories of how the Guided Conversation has worked so far will be invaluable for all HAIRE partners. They can feel comfortable going out into the field.

Kim Boes is a researcher at the Solidarity University. She is involved in setting up the pilot sites in The Netherlands and works on developing the HAIRE toolbox together with all partners. Kim is also a PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp, focusing her dissertation on the micro dynamics of social innovation in rural areas. 

 

What is HAIRE?

Healthy Ageing through Innovation in Rural Europe

The Social Innovation Group (SIG) at the University of Exeter is a multi-disciplinary team of researchers who work on place-based and person-centred issues. We collaborate with organisations in the third sector, health and social care, the environment sector, and local and regional government, to create positive change in communities and improve people’s wellbeing. HAIRE is designed to promote healthy ageing through innovation in rural Europe.

The HAIRE project, led by SIG, aims to bring about social innovation and empowerment for older people. Rural communities are at risk of dying out: their populations are ageing and poor public transport, lack of local support and facilities, out-migration of young people, reduced services, isolation and fragmented health and social care systems all negatively impact the health and wellbeing of older people. HAIRE will tackle the problem of loneliness and isolation amongst the older population in rural areas, leading to greater community integration, better wellbeing, social innovations and empowerment. These solutions will be based on their own individual interests, capabilities and preferences and supported by the voluntary, private and public sectors.

How will we do this?

HAIRE brings together existing tools for development and deployment in rural areas. These include the Guided Conversation, Social Network Analysis and Neighbourhood Analysis. The “Guided Conversation” has been developed by the University of Exeter in conjunction with our partners to make sure it is appropriate for each specific location. It is a person-centred tool that allows people to reflect on their own needs, desires, interests and aspirations. The other two tools (Social Network Analysis and Neighbourhood Analysis) help communities to understand their own assets, levels of vitality and the potential for social innovation from the ground up. By training volunteers to deploy these tools, HAIRE hopes to develop a genuinely grass-roots approach to communities developing solutions that reduce loneliness and isolation in villages. Meanwhile, HAIRE also brings together local people, local government, agencies, organisations and the voluntary sector to innovate in service design and delivery.

How will HAIRE be delivered?

There are 8 pilot sites – 2 each in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and France. Volunteers in each pilot area will be trained to administer the HAIRE toolkit which comprises a Guided Conversation tool and easy-to-use Social Network Analysis and Neighbourhood Analysis tools. Each pilot site will undertake around 75 Guided Conversations with people over the age of 60 who are no longer in employment, from which action plans will be produced. Each community will receive its own Community Report based on these baseline data. Partners will get together to share their experiences and prepare new models of service design and delivery for their areas. The ultimate aim is gaining the participation of older people so that they have a voice and the power to design or improve access to services and products that meet their needs and wishes beyond the pilot project and into the future.