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Prescribing happiness

Social prescribing may be the answer to tackling loneliness in Barnet

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Jenny Thorby
By Karen Williamson 23 March 2021

Do you know about social prescribing? Chances are, you’ve heard of it but don’t know exactly what it is and how it could help you or someone you know. Here, social prescribing link worker Jenny Thorby, one of 10 link workers around Barnet managed by Age UK Barnet, tells us what she does.

A 75-year-old man I helped recently hadn’t spoken to anyone for nearly a year – apart from the hospital staff after suffering a stroke. Can you imagine what happens to people when they’ve had so little social contact for so long? 

This man was referred to me by his doctor and my job was to link him to local services, groups and activities to widen his social connections and help ease his loneliness. When medicine or pills aren’t necessarily the answer, doctors are now sending patients to social prescribing link workers like me. 

A GP may pick up that a patient is feeling isolated, lonely or stressed out by work or they have money or housing problems – issues that can’t be fixed by doctors or medicine alone, but may still make us feel unwell or affect our overall health and wellbeing. 

And if the link worker helps people tackle these issues and take control of their health, the idea is it’ll take pressure off GPs: by improving people’s wellbeing, they are less likely to get ill and need a doctor. 

After receiving a referral, the first thing I do is spend time asking questions, getting to know the person and building a rapport.  Over a few phone sessions, I will then talk through all the options – local resources, information and advice, for instance, and then link people to the service, community activity or local group that best meets their needs. 

One of the biggest concerns this past year has been loneliness and isolation. It’s common for people to get through a week without having a conversation with anyone. In fact, a lot of older people book appointments with their GP just to speak to someone.  

Admitting to feelings of loneliness can be hard though and it can take a while to tease this out. Someone may have gone to their GP for a low mood and then when I speak to them it’ll emerge that they haven’t seen anyone for months or even spoken to friends or family. 

It’s not just older adults living by themselves experiencing loneliness - I’ve spoken to mums who are feeling socially isolated. Women with children who have special needs and behavioural difficulties have struggled to look after their children all day while the schools were closed.  And a lot of younger mums who are looking after small children on their own are feeling overwhelmed. 

After discussing all the options, I might refer them to relevant local organisations that offer support and activities. Or if they have mental health issues, they might need therapeutic support and we’d refer them to cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling.

I’m seeing people who’ve lost their jobs after ten or 20 years. So I help them navigate the benefits system, and find ways back into employment by linking them to relevant benefit check and advice services and training programmes. All this instability also led to an increase in referrals to food banks and people really struggling to make ends meet.

Overall, it’s important to build a relationship with the person who’s been referred so they trust you enough to share their problems. Still, some people are proud and find it hard to accept help.

A 94-year-old Italian woman I speak to won’t accept the shopping service because her whole life revolves around going to Brent Cross and getting her shopping.  She says: "Everybody knows me in Brent Cross!! They help me take my shopping to the cab and the cabman knows me!"

I find that people say more the second or third time we speak. Some people just need time to settle in, open up and think about what they need

We do have to manage expectations, however. We don’t support people long term but we want to transition people to a service that will support them long term. This idea is that we give control to people to help them manage their own needs in a way that suits them. 

It is too early to assess how well social prescribing is working in Barnet, but signs are positive and studies elsewhere have shown social prescribing has led to improvements in quality of life and emotional and general wellbeing. One study in Shropshire found that visits to the GP went down 40 per cent!

Getting a referral

If you need help, please ask your GP surgery if they have a social prescribing service and request a referral. The service deals with issues including housing, care, benefits, healthy lifestyle, befriending, training, employment, volunteering, social activities and mental health services.

For advice and activities for people over 55, check out the Age UK Barnet website

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