Using ‘asset-based social work’ to enable older people to stay independent

Supporting older people to make the most of their strengths and forge community networks can promote their independence but it requires perseverance, a project has found

By Deborah Klee and Marc Mordey, co-directors, Vintage Communities

‘Use an asset based approach’ is now becoming a more frequent request to social workers. But what does it mean? For some it is shorthand for, ‘we want to improve social care but cannot fund developments, so try and get communities to do more for themselves’.

However, you interpret it, the message is clear: councils cannot continue to fund adult social care at the same level that it has previously and so we must shift from paternalistic services – a dependency on the state, to enabling people and communities to do more for themselves. But this requires a change in culture, not just within councils, but also in society and it will take time.

Vintage Communities is a community interest company that enables older people to transform their communities using an asset based approach. We were commissioned by the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Barking and Dagenham to demonstrate how this might be achieved. We worked with two neighbourhoods, one in each borough over a period of 12 months.

The two neighbourhoods that commissioners asked us to work with were very different. Wandsworth identified Bedford ward, the area between Balham and Tooting Bec stations; Barking and Dagenham chose Eastbrook ward in Dagenham as it had the highest number of older people. Both wards were dominated by a park – Tooting Common and Eastbrook Country Park – and both consisted of approximately 55 streets. The similarities stop there; Balham is much more affluent than Dagenham and this accounted for many differences in terms of the health of the groups of people we worked with, their aspirations, confidence to lead initiatives and motivation to get involved.

‘Youth workers for older people’

We describe our work as similar to that of detached youth workers but with older people. We ‘hang out’ where older people go and talk to them. We start with one or two contacts, from the councillors working in the wards, and talk to them to find out what interests them, which clubs and associations they go to. We visit the clubs and associations where we meet other older people. Wherever we go our questions are the same – ‘what interests you?’, ‘what would you like to see happening around here?’.
We use meaningful conversation and a lot of listening to find out what people are passionate about and the skills, talents and interests that they have. We talk to clubs, associations and organisations, including schools, churches, scouts and lunch clubs to find out what they are already doing for the community, what they can offer and connections that they would like to make with other groups. We bring together people, clubs and associations making connections between them, enabling them to make a difference, by using what they already have to achieve their aspirations.

We are pleased with the progress made by the people that we worked with in the two neighbourhoods. We made it clear from the outset that our direct involvement would only last for nine months, after which the work needs to be sustained by them. We worked with Balham for twelve months; the group have formed a committee, the neighbourhood network, and are continuing with the initiatives that they started. None of this twelve strong group has previously been involved in formal volunteering or similar work. The Dagenham group are a bit less confident. They are keen for initiatives to continue and will participate, but may be dependent on paid workers from local groups to provide leadership on each of the projects. However we have seen the group grow in confidence and believe that in time more progress could be made.

What we have learnt

  • This type of community building takes time, patience and perseverance – but real relationships are formed between people and associations that will last long after our involvement.
  • Community and voluntary organisations have a lot to offer, especially when they pool their resources, skill and expertise, but start with what the neighbourhood wants to achieve and what they already have. Allow citizens to lead.
  • There is an appetite for community involvement – people and associations want to make a difference and often only need to be asked and ‘given permission’ – but this willingness needs to be stimulated and nurtured.
  • Giving control to citizens and nurturing them to fulfill their aspirations for their neighbourhood requires a very different way of working. It cannot be standardised or easily measured – but it is sustainable, reduces dependence on the state and empowers people by showing them they have the resources to live a better life.

Implications for social work practice

  • Do not start by assessing a person’s deficits or needs. Start with their assets, their strengths and skills. Are they being used? Does the person recognise their strengths and how to use them?
  • What are the person’s family and social networks? How can these friendships and relationships help them to achieve their goals?
  • By enabling a person to recognise what they have and empowering them to use this resource you will be demonstrating a technique that they can use throughout their life.
  • There will be some things that the person will need from statutory and paid services but start with assets first and then look at the gaps.
  • Just as people have enormous untapped resources so do communities but investment has to be made in stimulating and nurturing this resource – it does not happen on its own.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.