‘Heath by Stealth’ and Social Prescribing19 Jun 2023
Streatham Common Cooperative, or ‘sCCoop‘, is a community-led social enterprise that manages Streatham Rookery – an idyllic garden space in Lambeth. Streatham Common Cooperative runs a variety of projects and events, including social prescribing, nature conservation and management, a farmers’ market, and much more.
Leaping Forward for Dementia
The project ‘Leaping Forward for Dementia in London‘ is run by Streatham Common Cooperative in collaboration with FrogLife, a charity concerned with protecting the UK’s reptiles and amphibians. The volunteer group meet at the Rookery and do things together including social chats, walks, and activities centred around a theme.
The themes often focus on an aspect of nature, such as flowers or a particular insect. They discuss these themes, which often bring about happy memories from participants and spark conversation. Some activities include weeding, conservation, or wildlife data collection
The local GP refers individuals to the group. Also, there are posters throughout the local area and online, which attract participants.
While the target for this group is people experiencing dementia, it is open to all. Friends and family can also attend, even if their loved one with dementia is no longer able to. Vicky stressed that this was intentional. People with dementia, she said, want to interact with the wider community just like everyone else.
Interestingly, paid carers do not attend, and this highlights the sense of independence that is so important to the group. Independence was a key concern when setting up the group and sCCoop ensured that people could attend alone if they wanted to.
Something that makes Streatham Common Cooperative’s dementia volunteering group especially unique is its laid-back attitude to risk. The group will treat participants as able and active, even though they may also be experiencing memory problems. Activities will often involve using potentially dangerous tools, such as drills and gardening equipment. They also do activities such as fire lighting with flint. Supervision is in place for all of this.
When setting up the group, Vicky was keen not to create something where attendees were just sitting around. Such groups can be tempting due to their inherent safety but are also much less beneficial for participants themselves.
While higher risk, participants learn that they can still challenge themselves and are not entirely reliant on others, as they may sometimes fear.
The risks and benefits must be weighed against each other, and perception plays a part in this. A reason why the work participants do at the Rookery is so beneficial is because it is valued in the same way as any other volunteer. The Rookery treats them as people, not patients.
Relatedly, some of the participants have mobility issues, which can create challenges in the not-so-accessible Rookery, not to mention further potential risks as well. This challenge, however, can be empowering for people to overcome. It allows participants to feel capable in many ways.
Vicky explained that the unique experiences people have in the group means “Somebody might not remember what they’ve done that day. But, if they’re feeling happy, empowered, and exhilarated, then that feeling, that mood still remains.”
Vicky was already aware of social prescribing as a pathway. She set this group up with social prescribing in mind because of her own personal experiences. She was directed to The Conservation Volunteers’ Green Gym service after experiencing a period of homelessness and mental health concerns.
While not necessarily described as social prescribing at the time, she attended Green Gym sessions in order to improve her mental health and social situation. From there she spent a number of years working for The Conservation Volunteers before becoming operations manager at sCCoop. She is an advocate of social prescribing because of this first-hand experience.
Lambeth also has a very supportive local GP – a real advocate for social prescribing and its benefits. Having a GP on board with your social prescribing work undoubtedly makes the process easier, Vicky has observed. She will often bypass link workers and speak to the GP directly, saving on time and reducing the link worker’s likely busy caseload.
Health by Stealth
An interesting concept that came up throughout our conversation was the idea of ‘health by stealth’. This is something that is present throughout social prescribing, but not often highlighted.
The basic concept is that while a group or activity has health benefits, both mental and physical, these benefits are never the focus. Vicky said that the idea of going to something primarily described as a ‘dementia support group’ puts some people off. Such a group could seem too medical. Or, to those with considerable pride, they may reject the idea that they need ‘support’ at all.
For this reason, the ‘Leaping Forward for Dementia’ group is described as a volunteer group where people can offer their skills and do some worthwhile work. The health benefits, such as exercise, being in nature, and socialising, are just under the surface.
“What we offer here is normality, really,” Vicky said. Their promotional posters also reflect this. People with dementia are the primary target audience for the posters, with accessibility being a key concern. Meanwhile, others are able to ‘read between the lines’ and understand the benefits inherent in such a group.
These posters are another example of excellent ‘on-the-ground’ engagement, similar to findings in our previous case study on community engagement.
The Leaping Forward for Dementia group was lucky to have a supportive GP in Streatham. But, the real success of the group lies with how the project has been designed. It has a balanced approach to risk, offering a chance for people to remain capable members of society despite their health problems.
They have a unique, forward thinking approach to working with people experiencing dementia. Their laid-back attitude and ‘health by stealth’ perspective has created a social prescription that not only puts the individual first, but also genuinely values the work that these individuals do.
Age is no barrier to the power of social prescribing and this project is a great example of this.