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UK Coaching Team
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Safety and Welfare Coach

Coaching’s Crucial Role in Tackling Loneliness

Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. Blake Richardson visited The Grand Care Centre in Nottingham, where staff trained to be physical activity coordinators are doing a magnificent job of helping to cultivate social engagement and wellbeing in this high-risk group

First the bad news. Britain is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic.

A study by the British Red Cross, in partnership with The Co-op, found that more than nine million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely. 

Chronic loneliness can have a devastating effect on people’s physical, mental and emotional health. 

Experiencing loneliness and social isolation can hurt in the same way that feelings hurt. Over time, this can give rise to debilitating symptoms that mirror the psychological effects of depression, impacting negatively on mood and inducing feelings of apathy.

All of us, to varying degrees and at various points in our life, will have experienced such symptoms. But they are usually fleeting and less all-consuming than those who feel persistently overwhelmed by an empty sense of loneliness brought on by long periods without contact, company or companionship.

Strong words, but such is the scale and gravity of the loneliness epidemic and its social and medical consequences – which, mounting evidence suggests, include an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, anxiety and depression – that openness and candour is essential.

Now for some much-needed good news 

The pressing challenge is being addressed by greater cross-sector collaboration and a growing recognition that coaching has an instrumental role to play in helping to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

The number of social intervention programmes has mushroomed, and coaching is at the heart of many of them.

These are having a terrific impact, and nowhere is this more evident than in the outstanding work being done by Oomph!, whose raison d'être, ‘enhancing mental, physical and emotional wellbeing for older adults’, is rooted in the catchy company slogan ‘a full life for life!’.

 

The numbers stack up

Since 2017 Oomph! have trained more than 8,000 members of staff and over 700 community instructors to deliver social activities to people over the age of 50. The upshot: 90,000 exercise classes that have positively impacted on well-being in homes and day care centres nationwide – showcasing brilliantly the value of coaching to communities and its role in cultivating social engagement and combating loneliness.

In this same time Oomph! have forged a raft of new partnerships with governing bodies of sport and the Active Partnerships Network, which facilitates sports in every English county.

The upskilling has effectively created thousands of new coaches. The trained staff and volunteers working in care homes, retirement villages, sheltered housing, councils and day care centres may go by a hotchpotch of titles – well-being lead, community champion, physical activity worker, engagement co-ordinator – but, make no mistake, by championing a person-centred approach to the fun and sociable physical activity sessions they deliver, they are, by modern definition, coaches.

The work of Oomph Wellness Training Ltd, to give them their full title, and their Oomph! In the Community project, has been recognised and rewarded by a generous Sport England grant as part of their funding strategy for an active ageing population.

We wanted to see the project’s impact for ourselves, so organised a day trip to the Grand Care Centre in Nottingham – a purpose-built 82-bed care facility owned by New Care – to speak to the Oomph-trained Wellbeing Team and get a snapshot of opinion from the elderly residents who are deriving such immense benefit from the sessions.

Leading a merry dance

While it is a dangerous misconception to assume loneliness is an issue exclusive to the elderly – it is a health condition that does not discriminate between age, gender, community, background or wealth – what we also know is that people over the age of 50 have a higher likelihood of experiencing loneliness, with the symptoms particularly profound.

The elderly often lack the requisite social support network and, particularly if they are confined to their homes or have long-term health conditions, such as dementia, can find forging new social connections difficult. 

To prevent loneliness becoming entrenched, older people are therefore reliant upon support services, including coaches, to deliver activities suitable for them.

I spent two enthralling hours at The Grand Care Centre, watching four Oomph-trained wellbeing coordinators – supported by Oomph! Regional Wellbeing Coordinator Jade Curtis – deliver an exercise class to residents with middle and late-stage dementia.

It was truly inspiring, like watching a nature programme where time-lapse photography captures the advance of springtime. Things were quiet and still to begin with but, when the team began working their magic, inertia soon gave way to action as residents sprang to life. Pom-poms and props provided a colourful backdrop, while the residents showed infectious energy and enthusiasm as they sang and danced along to a medley of 80s disco classics.

We also paid a visit to Selby to film North Yorkshire Sport's Strong and Steady programme, which offers physical activity opportunities for the elderly, and the chance to make new friends 

 

Life doesn’t end with a dementia diagnosis

Bridget Peck, Lead Wellbeing Coordinator of the Grand Wellbeing Team, explained that the session I was attending was called ‘The Five Senses’, designed especially for people living with dementia – although all the residents are invited to attend – with the idea being to evoke positive feelings by arousing all five senses.

“It’s all about gaining their trust and so a person-centred approach is absolutely key,” says Bridget. “When they first come here they feel the world has ended but that very quickly changes. And when you ask residents what they like about the place, most of the time they will answer, ‘I love the activities’, so we keep it busy and it’s a very vibrant area.

Janet is a prime example. When she first came here she was bed-bound and very socially isolated. It was picked up she had memory issues so we moved her to our ‘forget-me-not’ floor for people living with dementia, and now she is walking, dancing and engaging with everything and everyone. She is happy, laughing, and she knows all our names. Before she didn’t want to know and was more focused on what she couldn’t do. Now she is focused on what she can do.”

The session I attended provided compelling evidence that life doesn’t end with a dementia diagnosis. Physical activity and music defy the distressing symptoms of dementia, stimulating regions of the brain other activities struggle to reach. Anxiety was absent, mobility enhanced and social interaction was in full swing – quite literally in full swing, especially when the playlist moved on to YMCA and In the Navy!

Having trained wellbeing coordinators who know exactly how best to administer exercise and music therapy to maximise its impact on wellbeing is as crucial as the activity itself.

We kicked off with a proverbs quiz “to get the mind active” (“Jack of all trades…” Bridget calls out, waiting for the residents to answer. “Birds of a feather… a woman’s work… laughter is the best…”) before everyday objects were passed around for residents to touch to see if they might rekindle memories. Small containers were then opened and residents were asked to sniff the contents and see if they could guess the familiar scent the waxy substance inside was infused with. My small tub smelled of fresh linen.

Coordinators then provided one-to-one assistance in a gentle warm-up of the limbs before the first few familiar riffs began to ring out through the speakers. There was a faint sound of a zip being opened, which signalled the appearance of the pom-poms.

Post disco and singalong, the end of the session finished with a warm-down and individual copies of a poem – ‘A simple hug’ – being handed out, which Joyce read aloud to the group. 

And then came the plea for someone to open a window. It was ten minutes too late for my liking but a clear sign that the activity session had been a success.

 

‘Absolutely amazing… we’ve had all sorts of laughs’

Oomph! have a holistic ethos to well-being, with the sheer variety of opportunities for coordinated social interaction and physical activity all serving to stimulate mind, body and soul.

Joyce’s train of thought can suddenly drift – a trademark symptom of her dementia – but she provided a wonderful summary of how the sessions have helped improve her quality of life.

When I first came here I felt really lonely,” she begins, “but the movement classes have been absolutely amazing for me as I have always liked exercise from being a young girl and we have a really good time. We’ve had all sorts of laughs and all sorts of fun. One lady said to me, ‘there’s something about these classes. Something’s been lifted and everybody seems to be happy’.

‘It makes you feel good – really makes you feel good – and puts you in a good mood. At first when they said ‘do you want to take part?’, I wasn’t so sure, but before long I was being asked to demonstrate to some of the older residents to help get them involved.” 

Jade provides further evidence of the sessions’ transformative impact.

“There is a gentleman who, since he’s been coming to the exercise classes, has developed a newfound self-confidence as he has seen that he can do more than he thought he could.

Another lady didn’t want to get out of bed when she arrived recently and was nursed in her room but now she is dancing along and having a great time.

“Sometimes it doesn’t have an effect on their mobility but it always seems to have an effect on the way they are feeling inside. There are lots of examples where people have chosen to stay in their room but, after coming to a session, joining in and talking to other people, they now look forward to that social interaction.”

And this positive knock-on effect stretches beyond the wellbeing of the residents. 

“Especially with dementia, sometimes there is a lack of communication, and people feel they can’t engage in conversation with their loved ones, but the sessions help them connect and are something they can be a part of too,” adds Jade.

For Joyce, loneliness is no longer an issue as she says she has been made to feel part of a group and leads a busy life. There are regular day trips, art workshops, knitting classes, quizzes and library visits to look forward to as well as the daily activity sessions, and the centre is opened to visits from community groups and nursery school children, while a dance school are frequent guests, performing routines and songs for residents.

Forging strong community links is another tried and trusted facilitator of social interaction, and a team of volunteer ‘befrienders’ form another key link in the chain, being matched to residents with similar interests.

A video showcasing Oomph!'s work with Central Bedfordshire Council to create independence, social interaction and physical activity opportunities for the elderly

 

No such word as can’t in Bridget’s book

Determining where one person falls on the spectrum of loneliness is highly subjective. Even defining loneliness can be difficult. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness produced arguably the best formal statement of the meaning of loneliness to date, describing it as: a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.

Add to that subjectivity a complexity of causes – major life transitions or lifestyle changes, such as bereavement; taking on caring duties; relocating; changing career; retirement; unemployment; becoming a parent; developing a health condition; loss of mobility; separation or divorce – and you can understand why different methods of support are required, depending on an individual’s precise circumstances.

“This is why we take an individual approach to what our residents want,” explains Bridget. “We make sure we adapt the sessions depending on the participants’ individual health needs and what they are physically able to do.

Sometimes the family will tell us they loved rugby but they can’t do it anymore because they are in a wheelchair. But they can still do rugby because they can hold the ball, they can smell it, touch it.

We’ve got a former goalkeeper, for example, who loves football and is in a specialised chair, so we got some nets in and some new balls so he can be a goalkeeper again.

“How you phrase things is important too. One gentleman preferred to remain in his room, so instead of asking if he wanted to take part in an activity, I changed my wording to: “Do you know I am trained in chair exercise? This will be really good for your mobility.’ He dived off the bed and now he’s a regular.”

For a lot of elderly people living alone and at home, the TV is their main form of company. Not so here, with Bridget saying televisions are one of the most underused amenities in the building.

 

Living life to the full

Coaching offers a vital lifeline for people who are experiencing loneliness.

There are a multitude of reasons why people may feel acutely lonely, demanding a multi-dimensional approach to tackling one of the of the major social issues of our age.

But Oomph! and the team at the Grand Care Centre are doing a fantastic job in helping the over-50s demographic, recognising that coached physical activity sessions provide much-needed social connections and interaction that is crucial to tackling the problems inherent in loneliness.

Just as you can’t turn back time, so it is not possible to reverse the physical symptoms of dementia or old age. But the work being carried out by Bridget and her team is proof that you can slow them down.

The fun and inclusive sessions foster camaraderie, build friendships and, ultimately, ensure independence is maintained for longer so people can experience ‘a full life for life’.

The Campaign to End Loneliness is perhaps the most recognised charity in the UK dealing with loneliness amongst the elderly. Its website contains a wealth of information, resources and advice, and the videos Let’s Talk More and Be More Us are two of the most watched UK videos on loneliness.

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