A life-changing experience

The government wants to extend the principles of Sure Start to older people. They could do worse than take their inspiration from a community centre in rural Shropshire, reports Anabel Unity Sale

Sitting in an area of south Shropshire known as Little Switzerland in tribute to its natural beauty is a practical example of the government’s desire to extend Sure Start to older people.

In January, the Mayfair Community Centre in the market town of Church Stretton was highlighted as a model of good practice in the Social Exclusion Unit’s report on improving the lives of older people.(1) It says Sure Start’s “guiding principles offer a radical and transferable model for services for older people”.

Sure Start was created in 1999 so that children and families living in disadvantaged areas could access care, education, health, family support and other services in one place.

Through pilots of the Sure Start-style approach, the government will trial “one-stop shops” where older people can access services, including social care, education, health and housing. The schemes, called Pilot Link-Age Plus, are funded by the Department for Work and Pensions to the tune of £10m over two years and will be run by councils in Devon, Gateshead,
Gloucestershire, Lancaster, Leeds, Salford, Nottinghamshire and Tower Hamlets.

The Sure Start to Later Life report states: “We think that the approach of Sure Start in galvanising communities and reshaping children’s services can work just as well for older people.” But do the practitioners and service users share this optimism?

The response from those involved with the Mayfair centre suggests they do. Development manager Nicola McPherson believes the secret of the centre’s success is that it is owned by the local community: “It sounds like a cheesy strapline, ‘run by the community and for the local community’, but it really is like that here.” This success, she says, can be mimicked elsewhere.

The centre is operated by the Strettons Mayfair Trust, which was formed in 1996 to launch it. The building had been a Shropshire Council-run registered care home and was due to close until local people got together to form the trust. In June 1997 the centre opened to offer care and support to local people. Originally on only one floor, in 2003 the centre received money from the New Opportunities Fund to build a second floor, pay for the running costs of its youth work and crèche and contribute towards two posts until the end of 2006. The rooms on the second floor are brightly painted and have skylights so users can see the nearby hills.

The centre is open to people of all ages, although most are older than 60. The services include IT and digital photography classes, arts and crafts, a telephone befriending service to relieve isolation, complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and aromatherapy, and sessions run by the Citizens Advice Bureau and a credit union. Mayfair also provides 58 day care service places a week which clients can attend for as little as an hour or for the whole day.

McPherson says the point of the centre is to reach out to people who may be isolated because of their rural surroundings, show them the activities they can take part in and put them in touch with statutory or voluntary services. “We’ve created a place that has lots of activities, where people can be part of the community and meet others.”

One of the regular visitors is Joan Cowan, 71, who has been attending for two years and takes part in an exercise class on Monday afternoons. Her daughter introduced her to the centre when Cowan moved to the area. “I feel fortunate to live in a town that has a facility like Mayfair,” she says.

Cowan has taken several classes at the centre and often visits its café to meet friends for coffee. She says her life has been transformed since using the centre and she has watched others improve too. “When I first came here I was a very tired lady and emotionally exhausted. Within six months I was a different person.”

Another happy user is Carey Griffiths, 78. A former local GP, he had a stroke in October 2002 and lost the use of his left arm and leg. After five months in hospital his wife suggested he use the centre’s day services. At first he refused: “I wasn’t keen. The centre had a stigma because it was for the elderly and I don’t want to be elderly.” Fortunately, he followed his wife’s advice and now attends Mayfair every weekday, usually from 9.30am until 5pm. “Coming to the centre has broadened my life and enlarged my number of friends,” he says. “Otherwise I would be cooped up at home reading and vegetating.”

The centre relies totally on its 231 volunteers, who provide more than 400 hours of their time each week. Doris Cooper, 80, has been a volunteer since the centre opened and, until 18 months ago, worked in its kitchen. Now she works on reception one morning or afternoon a week dealing with queries from users and professionals. She is also taking a digital photography class, “I get the best of both worlds by volunteering and using the centre’s services,” she says.

The Maysi project (Mayfair Supporting Independence) to reduce bed-blocking is also based at the centre. It began in  2001 to help people stay in their homes for as long as possible by working with social services, health and other agencies.

Jenny Englefield, the project co-ordinator, assesses prospective users while they are in hospital and draws up a care package. She oversees two volunteers and eight care workers who deal with clients when they are discharged. “We are trying to encourage social interaction so clients have healthier lifestyles,” Englefield says.

So will other communities benefit from the government’s drive to extend Sure Start to older people? McPherson agrees with the idea, but points out that, although the concept works well in Church Stretton, it may not be as successful elsewhere. “You need to have common access to services, professionals working together and long-term resources, that’s what is important.”

But Griffiths believes other older people would benefit from a facility such as Mayfair. “The centre is a beacon of encouragement and hope. It helps a lot of people who are volunteers by giving them a purpose and, more importantly, it helps an awful lot of people who’d otherwise be in residential homes gawping at the TV.”

(1) A Sure Start to Later Life: Ending Inequalities for Older People, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2006


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