Though the elderly population in the Harrogate district is growing fast and struggling with transport and the often intense rurality of their environment, Wetherby is also facing its share of the crisis. Reporter JAMES METCALF visits the WiSE cafe in Boston Spa to speak to those most involved with the social isolation facing the area’s older people.
“Social isolation makes people think they are not worth anything to society anymore, but the stories they can tell you about their lives are fascinating and very humbling.”
These are the words of Margaret Brennan, the owner of a home care provider in Wetherby who has been working to bring about a change for older people in Wetherby and the surrounding area whose goal, through Home Instead Senior Care, is to bring a sense of value back to older people.
From visiting them in their own home, driving them to the doctors, taking them to their favourite place to walk, or carrying out the essential tasks around the house that they can no longer do for themselves, Ms Brennan has targeted the needs of older people and tailors the Home Instead services to each individual.
“People just are lonely. A lot of families are not local and lots of older children aren’t around, so we take people out to exercise classes, to go walking, whatever they need to do. Our services are there to provide whatever people require to enhance the quality of their lives,” she said.
“It makes a huge difference just having a friendly face. Even if you are just doing some housework for them you are chatting and you can relate to thing they are feeling but not sharing because you can get withdrawn in yourself sometimes.
“And it is quite a rural place round here and there are local people who don’t have access to a car and don’t use a bus anymore so they are very limited in how to get out unless someone takes them, so we run a service that can pick people up and take them somewhere.”
One of the places people often want to visit is the WiSE (Wetherby in Support of the Elderly) cafe in Boston Spa.
With all the usual trappings of a cafe serving food and drink, there are also wrap-around activities, including a knitting club, poetry group, a singing club, called the WiSE Howlers, and a zumba light exercise class.
“Then everybody shares lunch, so not only is it targeting wellbeing and healthy living in terms of the exercise it is targeting the social side of things and that is what we offer here,” said WiSE activities coordinator Lillian Allen.
“What we offer is a couple of hours of light entertainment for likeminded people to share experiences.”
This is all housed in the WiSE cafe, open three days a week, which has now been running with the help of volunteers for almost 18 months.
Cafe manager Christine Hardman said: “The concept is an intergenerational community cafe. Primarily it is a place where isolated people can come and have coffee and a hot meal and a freshly baked cake.
“It is going really well. I should think 80 per cent of our customers are regulars. They know us by name and we know them and if we have a volunteer free they can sit and chat with them, which is really important.
“The aging population is growing rapidly and there are a lot of very isolated, lonely elderly people and it is a privilege to do this job. I love it because they come in here and if I can just give them a morning of chat and integrating with other people and friends it is wonderful.
“It is a great idea and there should be one of these on every high street. It is a simple concept and there are too many isolated people.”
The cafe has a clear message and is often visited by the British Red Cross who refer people to WiSE if they feel they might benefit from what is on offer, physically but also socially.
The Red Cross also links up with GP surgeries across the Wetherby and Harewood wards to establish its community connect service, aimed specifically at older people who may be isolated and suffering as a result.
Service coordinator Susanna Richardson said: “I think there is a lot of social isolation. People are getting older and their partners and friends die and it is a big change - a lifestyle change which can be very very difficult and sometimes people need that bit of support to realise they can go out and meet likeminded people.
“Part of the problem is that anybody who has been independent finds it difficult to ask for help and don’t like to admit that maybe they can’t quite do everything on their own.
“I spend every morning in a different surgery within Wetherby just chatting to people who want to have a natter.
“The doctors are slowly starting to refer people who might need emotional support and we try to connect people back into the community.”
Home Instead, WiSE, and the British Red Cross, all operating from the central hub of the cafe, are just a few examples of the organisations actively making an enormous difference to the lives of older people. In doing this they form part of a larger framework of people across the district pursuing what it takes to make a change for the better.
To find out more about these services, call WiSE on 01937 588994 and for Home Instead call 01937 220510.
You can contact Ms Richardson at the Red Cross by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 07912080920.
At 91 years old, Rita is the oldest participant in the zumba exercise class she attends every week.
In the Thursday bustle of the WiSE cafe in Boston Spa, she sits in a circle with several other people, taking part in light exercise before sitting down for a coffee and a sandwich with her classmates.
This, she says, is as important as the exercise itself, for it provides the social contact all people need but too many often go without.
“I have had a bad stroke and I am determined that I am going to get better,” she said.
“I am trying very hard because I don’t want to be a zombie so I do exercise regularly.
“It makes all the difference to me because otherwise I don’t go out very much at all.”
Rita relies on friends to take her to the class, and Mike and his wife have formed a rota to ensure Rita gets there every week.
She said: “The people are all very friendly and very nice and I couldn’t do it without all these kind people because I don’t come unless they bring me and take me home.
“I can’t drive or anything like that and I can’t even walk to get the bus, so without all these kind people I can’t come.”
Her participation in the class and the socialisation of the lunch - easy enough to organise - means Rita has something to look forward to every week.