Supporting meaningful connections through social prescribing: Evidence from our Ageing Better programme evaluation
‘Supporting Meaningful Connections Through Social Prescribing’, an independent evaluation report, explores the varied social prescribing approaches undertaken by Ageing Better - a seven-year (2015 – 2022) £87 million programme, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, bringing together 14 local partnerships across England.
The programme aimed to enhance the lives of people over 50 by improving social connections, addressing loneliness, and enabling people over 50 to be more engaged in the design of services for their communities.
Kate Green, Evaluation Manager, and Ellen Cross, Funding Manager, at The National Lottery Community Fund, highlight the main learnings and insights from the report which will be discussed with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities’ Social Prescribing Event on Wednesday 15 June.
What is social prescribing?
While there is no universally accepted definition - it is usually understood as a connector model where health professionals refer a person to a connector or link worker. They work with the person to produce a personalised plan (or ‘prescription’). This usually involves connecting people to local, non-clinical services which can provide them with practical, social and emotional support from within their community.
What did Ageing Better do?
Ageing Better partnerships delivered a range of social prescribing (or ‘community connector’) approaches ranging from:
- Low-intensity: one-off outreach or pop-up events to signpost people over 50 to activities
- Medium-or higher intensity: one-to-one or tailored support to enable people to identify and access services and activities. For example, working with people in their home, providing debt or mental health advice and accompanying people to appointments.
- Asset-based community development approaches where staff worked with local people to empower them to co-produce community support networks.
Benefits of social prescribing
The research found that Ageing Better’s activities were effective at engaging a diverse range of people over 50, including groups known to be at particular risk of, or who were already experiencing, loneliness and social isolation. It also found that, on average, participants reported being less socially isolated and lonely and saw improvements in their health and wellbeing.
Delivering effective approaches
The research identified a number of features to ensure effective delivery:
A ‘test and learn’ approach enabled partnerships to adapt the duration, intensity, referral routes and delivery of their activities.
- Wide range of activities
The breadth and diversity of activities offered within a community is important to enable people to find something that works for them. With that in mind, social prescribing and community connector activities should be part of a wider offer for people over 50, which provides a range of options for people to get involved.
- Cross sector partnership working and diverse referral routes
Effective cross-sector partnership improves the coordination of services, reduces duplication and identifies gaps. It also ensures people are able to access timely and appropriate support and activities. Creating diverse referral pathways into activities was an effective way of ensuring high uptake of activities.
- Based within communities
It was important for services to be based in their communities - in people’s homes or in a place that feels safe to them. It enables services to reach people who are isolated, help them understand people’s circumstances, and build trust. A strong understanding of the range of community-based support available is also important to enable personalised referrals.
- Follow up
Proactive follow-up support was a key part of an effective offer so people were supported beyond the point of onward referral. This included following-up with people, providing regular check-in calls, and finding out whether people had attended a group or undertaken a specific action and how it had gone.
- Co-production and strength-based approaches
Community development approaches can enable communities to use people’s skills and develop their own solutions to plug gaps in available activities and support, including through the development of informal groups. Being involved in design and development of these groups is empowering and gives people a sense of ownership.
Through an emphasis on holistic, person-centred and community-based working, social prescribers and community connectors working in Ageing Better partnerships have achieved positive outcomes for the people they support. The findings of Ageing Better, in relation to both how individual connectors carry out their work and the need to develop the wider ecosystems around community connector programmes, should be used to improve social prescribing approaches in other communities.