Learning from the Community Development with Older People role in South Bristol

Kathleen photo 16.3.23 (2)
Kathleen Woodhouse
Community Development Worker, Knowle West Healthy Living Centre

I am part of the team at Knowle West Healthy Living Centre (opens new window) in South Bristol that serves one of the most disadvantaged communities in South Bristol. Since 2020, my project has been funded by Bristol-based charity the St Monica Trust (opens new window) as part of a three-year funding programme.

The St Monica Trust wanted to use a community development approach to reengage older people in their communities and funded a number of organisations across the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire region.  We at Knowle West Healthy Living Centre use an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach to working with older people; finding out what matters to them and building on what’s strong in a community, to empower older people and support more social connections. Using a community development approach can take time to bear fruit but has led to new groups for older people that are sustainable.

I have been working in the South Bristol Community of Brislington for over two years. Here, I am seeing the benefits of the ABCD approach. I started by walking the area to find the places people meet, including the ‘bumping spaces’ where informal connections happen. I listened to residents, people active in the community and local community organisations. I met two amazing Brislington women who told me about the local older people who were feeling cut off and lonely. They wanted to bring people together but had no funds to book the church hall. I helped with that, so that they could open the doors. Two and a half years later, their 20-strong Tea Club is a constituted group with members taking on committee roles and has expanded to include a Zumba Gold session. Friendships have grown and people go out to other activities in the community and wider afield. A WhatsApp group means that people reach out to each other if they are feeling down, and there’ll always be someone free to meet up for a cuppa.

At this group I met someone who loved crafting. I had met with a vibrant new community arts organisation who were keen to support community connections. Working together, we piloted a social group where people could try out different arts or crafts, or just have a cuppa and a chat. The group is still thriving. It’s free to attend and many group members bring their art and crafting skills to share. But beyond that, it’s been a place for people to build friendships and find peer support. Many group members have physical and mental health challenges or have experienced bereavement, and I often overhear supportive conversations about the issues they are facing (and a lot of laughter and fun alongside these). “It’s a break from the real world”, is how one member put it.

I got talking to a regular group member who was reminiscing about the skittles team she played for in her younger days. She’d been recently bereaved and joined the group to expand her social life after many years as a carer. Someone mentioned the skittle alley at the local pub and before we knew it, we had persuaded the pub to offer free use of the alley on a Monday lunchtime. This group is a bit of a drop in but has a regular attendance of about 12 people. New members join all the time. Games are social and light-hearted with lots of chat. For the person who started the group there’s a sense of pride at the numbers attending and the joy people get from coming. For the local older community there’s an appreciation of having somewhere to go on a Monday afternoon, rather than feeling stuck at home.

Many older people in the area tell me how they are filling up their weeks with the increasing number of activity groups in Brislington.

I have learned so much from this project. The key things I would highlight are firstly, the importance of building and maintaining relationships. I know many local people, groups and organisations who have been supportive of my role. These relationships have helped me to support new groups to start up by spreading the word around the community. They have also helped with collaborative working. But above all else, I have learned that all community conversations are useful. We don’t know where they might lead, as I hope can be seen in the story above. We need to really listen to what matters to older people as this is the way to sustainable groups and activities and we’re grateful for the funding from the St Monica Trust that enables us to do this.

If you found this of interest,  find out more about other ABCD approaches to engaging, involving and coproducing housing, care and community solutions with older people and a selection of examples of practice in the Housing LIN’s CollaborAGE directory.


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