Timebanking, Good Gym and Social Prescribing

From social isolation to valued sports coach in one move…

I have recently signed up to Reading’s ‘Ready Friends’ befriending network on behalf of the timebank that I set up and continue to chair. NHS England allows staff to spend a week, fully paid, volunteering in their community or on other charitable projects, so I took advantage this by spending half a day at a workshop with about 10 different community organisations, all committed to combatting loneliness and social isolation in our town.

The groups at the meeting spanned from traditional-type befriending services, like those run by Age UK, to community transport schemes and one small group of neighbours who provide a home cooked meal for someone else in their street by just cooking a little more than they would normally.

Our timebank is providing social opportunities and links between people who share interests or who need help, and we have lots of success stories – someone who got a longed for job as a result of the skills and experience that running the timebank gave them, a person whose path to alcohol recovery has been helped by meeting people outside their usual circle, and one older person who used to go away every Christmas because it was too painful to be alone stayed in Reading last year, to meet up with friends made through the timebank.

There are examples like this from timebanks across the UK – where fantastic outcomes that improve people’s lives are the result of people and communities helping each other and not about the services they receive.

Another organisation at the meeting sparked some interest – Good Gym is doing fantastic work, particularly in the London area, but now expanding its reach. It encourages people to take up running and help their community at the same time.

Participants have three choices – join a group that runs somewhere to do a community-based activity like a gardening project; run to do a job to help someone, usually an older person, like putting a shelf up, then run back again; or be paired with an older person, with the aim of running to their house at a given time in the week. The twist is the older person is designated as the runner’s ‘coach’, providing a real reason to turn out on a dark and cold night.

I have pledged to sign up when Good Gym comes to Reading, as goodness knows I need the extra motivation to drag myself out to exercise on a wet Wednesday.

And lastly, we heard how the social prescribing project being run by Reading Voluntary Action has really demonstrated the power of person-centred conversations. Coupled with signposting to other support and helping people get connected to people and groups in their local community it has delivered improvements in all aspects of wellbeing for those involved.

The key to all this continuing to happen is of course the statutory sector recognising the huge contribution that community groups make to health, even though some of the schemes in the network do not look like traditional ‘services’ and have grown from the bottom up rather than as the result of a commissioning process. We are hoping that by working together we can build a network of supports across the town so that people are less likely to fall through the net. And my vision is also that those ‘befriended’ start to be seen for what they can do for their community, not what their community can do for them.

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