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All The Difference In The World

As part of my work with Age UK Oxfordshire, one of my roles was as a social prescriber. The opportunity then arose to head the bereavement support service due to the previous person being promoted. I was already facilitating one of our Late Spring groups locally, within the patch that I was social prescribing for, so I was really keen to take on the opportunity. Bereavement support makes all the difference in the world. Sometimes all somebody wants is to be listened to. You may not even have to do any more than that. People say it’s so lovely just to have the time given to them—purely to them— at a time that suits, in a place they want to be. They don't get that anywhere else. If they are then referred to a link worker or social prescriber, it’s still all about them, they set the agenda. We are purely there to help them and give them what they're needing. It's just so rare that that happens.  


When I started this role, a friend said to me, oh my god, how are you going to do that? I can't think of anything more depressing. But it's not depressing, because when people get over their initial sadness we start asking, right, how can we move forward? How can we help? What can we do? To see that change in people who then join our groups is amazing. Whatever we do—whether we’re meeting one to one, arranging a walk or a group—we see people having a laugh. Last year we arranged some massive tea parties as part of Dying Matters Week and people absolutely loved coming along. There are times when we all have a bit of a cry, people share or just listen, but people know you’re there for them, and they know that you genuinely care. How many jobs are there where at the end of your week you can look back and say, I’m making a difference to people? Even if it’s in a small way, and even if it takes six members of the team to achieve an outcome. That is the whole ethos of Age UK Oxfordshire. We all might just do a tiny bit—from the person who first picked up the call to the social prescriber who got the referral—but we’re all working together. 


If we weren’t involved with social prescribers, there would be huge amount of people who would have nowhere to go. There isn’t a lot out there, there really isn’t—especially for younger people. The great thing about social prescribing is that although we are Age UK Oxfordshire, as social prescribers we support anybody over 18, there isn't a limit on the age at which someone can be referred to us. It may be that we do have some younger people go into the groups. We can also find other options for them. For people who are working or who are younger there is very little out there. The beauty of our service is that there is no restriction on who we can help. The added value of social prescribing is in the variety and the range of people we are accessing. Younger people may not want to go to a group where there are older people, but we also have the flexibility to offer them a visit or a phone call. 


Once Covid was over and it was safe to start meeting again, we decided that the way forward was to go back slowly to running the groups as we had before. Unfortunately, we discovered that there was a lot of nervousness still around people meeting in groups and we weren't getting the number of people we’d previously had. In some places that was because the participants were no longer there. Some people felt too worried about mixing and going along to the groups again—because a lot of our audience consists of older people, who were obviously very vulnerable. Now what we have is a mixture. We have some face-to-face groups, but not as many. We look at the need in a specific area and the people who we’re getting referred to us. We also discovered that people were very keen to meet in a café, pub or walk.  


The beauty of the work we do is the way we link into all the bits of our service. Sometimes people will phone feeling that they want bereavement support, but often once I’ve gone to see them and we've had a long chat about the situation, it’s something different they need. Often, it’s not a recent bereavement. We’ve had a lot of people who had things happen during the pandemic, and they've never really had the chance to sit down and just tell someone the whole of their story. Sometimes they feel guilty, or they feel that it's wrong that they're still feeling this way after a couple of years. But talking it through and having the opportunity to take as long as they need—and just having me there to listen to that—is powerful. Often, they realise, actually, I am sort of over it. It isn’t really bereavement support now I'd like. I really want to go and meet people or go along and try something different. And in that case, we can refer in to the community link worker in their area who can look for opportunities for them. 


We are getting many more referrals, but for me, the biggest change has been in the way people access services. We’re part of the Oxfordshire Bereavement Alliance and it’s interesting that all the other services, like the Sobell House bereavement service, have said they’d found exactly the same as we did—that people weren't keen to do things the way they used to, that people are still very nervous, that it does have to be small groups or visits. It's been really interesting and good to see how you do need to be flexible. That's what I love about our service. It’s very much a case of asking, what’s going to work best? How are we going to reach the most people? How can we make sure we reach the people who need us and that the service is flexible and accessible for those people? There is always flexibility here. We'll have ideas from team members, they'll come along and say, look, can we do this? Will this work? Then I can go to my managers and say, how about this? Can we try this? The answer’s invariably yes, which is fantastic. That's what makes me so grateful to be working in my role. I have great support from people who genuinely care. 


I really believe in social prescribing. We’re very privileged because we have the backing of our organisation and therefore a team of people. Some surgeries employ social prescribers who work on their own, are not part of an organisation, and they do struggle sometimes. We’ve had calls from people who are struggling to find things to link in to. The good thing about us is that it doesn’t matter what referral you get or what the case is, because you may be a social prescriber but you've got an army of people behind you. You can get the information you need, and you can get the assistance you need to help that person. 


I once heard a phrase I found very moving. I phoned a man who had been referred in by a social prescriber. He’d been bereaved during Covid. I said, how about I come and see you? And he said, ‘Well, that would be lovely because I just thought that my wife had died and that was it and I was sad and lonely but just needed to get on with it. It was the end of my life, really. I told myself, this is your life now.’ I think that sums up how a lot of people feel. They feel that they are on their own, that their life has ended, that there is nothing. If we weren't able to get alongside them, listen to them, and hear how we can help, there would be people like that who would just exist until they didn't. And for me, that can never be a thing.


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