That’s the spirit

Jean Townsend is a member of a research team at the
University of Leeds, with a special interest in older people.
Before working for the university, she worked in the voluntary
sector with carers and for the NHS as chief officer of the
Community Health Council.

Mary Godfrey and Tracy Denby are researchers at the
Nuffield Institute for Health, University of Leeds.

“Having a safe, comfortable home, being close to friends and
amenities in a safe neighbourhood, being able to take part in
social activities, keeping busy, getting out and about and using
transport, knowing how to find the way around the system and having
good access to health services and to advice on how to stay

This is how a recent Audit Commission report summed up the factors
that contribute to a sense of independence and well-being in older
people. Many of them can be grouped under the heading
“neighbourhood support”.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation provides insight into
the importance of neighbourhood support for older
people.2 Between 2001 and 2004, researchers at Leeds
University worked with groups of older people to identify what
makes for a good life in old age and what kinds of services and
support can sustain well-being. The study took place in two
localities and used in-depth interviews, focus groups and
participant observation. Eighty-four people, aged 58 to 97, were
interviewed individually.

Central to a good life in old age was securing interdependence,
comprising the following:

  • Being part of a community where people care about and look out
    for each other.
  • “Not being a burden”, especially on family.
  • Maintaining reciprocal relationships.

In an ethnically diverse, inner city area of Leeds, our research
partner was Caring Together, one of 37 neighbourhood schemes in the
city that support and engage older people. Having their roots in
community development, many of these schemes received recognition
and support from Leeds Council in the 1990s as part of its strategy
to foster “community care” at the neighbourhood level. They are now
independent charities, managed by local people.

Caring Together provides advice, advocacy, support and befriending
to older people, organises social, leisure and interest pursuits,
and gives practical assistance with gardening, decorating and odd
jobs. It has five staff and a membership of 370, nearly one-third
of the local older population. In describing their relationship
with the group, older people not only indicated how helpful the
services were, they also demonstrated how the approach and method
of working was central in promoting well-being. Key factors

  • The search for ways to enable everyone to be involved – from
    active older people to those whose lives were increasingly
    restricted to the home and immediate area.
  • The emphasis on finding creative solutions to maintaining
    social relationships, even in the face of restriction.
  • The accessible, flexible support provided.

The opportunity to be involved was a key motivator for many
members of Caring Together, with individuals engaged in different
facets of work – as peer befrienders, fund-raisers, members of
planning groups and the management committee, and as participants
in social and interest-based activities. Ways were sought to enable
older people who were mainly housebound to use their skills and
expertise. One older woman spoke with pride of the knitting she had
done for a group tapestry; another recounted how she had taught her
Chinese student befriender to bake scones. Partnership and
reciprocity was revealed in the way newcomers were drawn in. Some
active older people were concerned about the perceived stigma of
belonging to an organisation for older people. Knowing that they
were helping others as well as enjoying themselves assuaged their

For those older people who are often excluded from social
activities by limited mobility and ill-health, gentle exercise
groups and small social groups were organised on a neighbourhood
basis. Bringing together people who shared common experiences of
working and living in the area facilitated the formation of new
friendships and created a social structure of value to

It also offered the opportunity for people to meet with
long-standing friends and acquaintances. Intimate groups of four or
five people allowed them to talk and reminisce, where larger groups
were viewed as too demanding. A strong tradition of church
“friendly visiting” was built upon, with many older members
supporting those who were unable to get out and about.

Volunteering crossed generations. Students from the university were
drawn in and it was clear that many firm friendships were
established, continuing long after the students had moved on.

For older people involved in running Caring Together, there were
two notable features of its way of working. First, the sheer
pleasure and fun derived from doing things that were challenging
and new. Second, the existence of paid staff offered freedom to
participate in the group’s work, without having to take on
day-to-day responsibility. One older woman, a leading community
activist in her younger days, talked about contributing her
expertise without feeling the full weight of running a group, as in
the past.

In marked contrast to statutory services, Caring Together was seen
as accessible: older people did not have to consider whether their
problem fitted agency-defined remits. Help-seeking had the
character of calling on a good neighbour or family member for help
and advice – for example, assistance when the smoke alarm
malfunctioned or with preparing sandwiches when the home care
worker was late.

People described the group as a safety net, “knowing someone is
there for you”. Even when Caring Together could not offer help
directly, staff would try to put people in touch with someone who
could. They acted as a link to housing, social care and health
agencies: providing advocacy on housing repairs, liaising with
district nurses or social services on problems of hospital
discharge. The group opened out new opportunities for people by
drawing on resources and networks within and outside the community:
adult education for life-long learning, university and independent
film-makers to produce a video celebrating older people’s lives;
and organising swimming and exercise groups with funding through
health promotion initiatives.

How far could such a model be replicated elsewhere? Is it dependent
on the existence of a cohesive community identity? In this respect,
the study offers hope while acknowledging the challenges. Our Leeds
locality comprised two distinct neighbourhoods. One had a long,
rich history of community participation and a strong sense of local
identity, the other was perceived differently. Here, there was
little sense of attachment to the wider community, although people
did reflect on neighbourly relations within their immediate street
or close by. By supporting and reinforcing existing social networks
and the values attached to neighbourliness, by using older people’s
experience and by working alongside community, faith and interest
groups, Caring Together sought to draw upon the weight of social
capital within the locality as well as extend its currency.

Neighbourhood groups that are rooted in the community and
underpinned by values of neighbourly support, reciprocity and the
engagement of older people at every level offer a significant
contribution to the well-being of older people. The challenge is to
ensure sustainability, given their often precarious financial
position. As new services are developed, it is essential that what
they do and how they do it reflect the values and priorities of
older people and are in tune with the communities in which they


This article looks at research into older people’s well-being
and the contribution made by neighbourhood groups. The research
identified older people’s key values – reciprocity, not being a
burden and being part of a community. It offers guidance for future
service developments by demonstrating that the way that
neighbourhood groups operate, rooted in local communities and in
tune with older people’s values and priorities, is as important as
the services they offer.


1 Audit Commission,
Older People – Independence and Well-being,

2 M Godfrey, J Townsend, T
Denby, Building a Good Life for Older People in Local
, Joseph Rowntree Foundation,

Further information 

  • Leeds Older People’s Forum at or tel 0113
    276 0999 
  • G Wistow, E Waddington, M Godfrey, Living Well in Later
    Life: From prevention to promotion
    , 2003. From
  • M Godfrey and T Randall, Developing a Locality Based
    Approach to Prevention with Older People
    , Nuffield Institute
    for Health, University of Leeds, 2003 
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation, at

or tel 0113 343 6993  Contact details for publication

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