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gardens, libraries, museums © Shutterstock

Link workers are employed within primary care to play a central role in social prescribing. They facilitate the key feature of social prescribing - drawing on ‘community assets’ (local groups, organisations, services, activities) to support people’s non-medical needs (e.g. loneliness, debt, housing problems). Link workers do this by taking time to understand an individual and their non-medical needs, and then connect them to relevant community assets. Link workers have to acquire a good knowledge of available community assets and may engage in community development as part of this – supporting the creation of new groups or activities in a local area.

The health and well-being benefits that people can experience from engaging with the cultural sector (e.g. visiting a museum, being part of a book group at a library, volunteering at a local botanical garden) have been reported. Consequently, this sector has potential as part of social prescribing. We wanted to explore how link workers viewed the cultural sector, particularly public (or curated) gardens, libraries and museums, in their work with older people (aged 60 years and older). This forms part of a bigger project we have been funded to undertake by UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council; it seeks to explore the question: Cultural institutions as social prescribing venues to improve older people’s well-being in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: What works, for whom, in what circumstances and why? We have published previous blogs about this project on our website.

 

The questionnaire

We sent an online questionnaire to link workers. They were recruited mainly through the Social Prescribing Network and the National Association of Link Workers. The questionnaire asked about things such as:

  • How often respondents used cultural settings as part of social prescribing
  • What they thought about the cultural sector’s role in social prescribing

It was completed by 148 link workers, who came from across the United Kingdom, during April and May 2021.

 

Some key findings

Responses suggested that link workers were most likely to refer older people to community assets that offered befriending or mental health/emotional support. Less common was for a connection with arts/cultural activities and volunteering. This could be due to a lack of communication between link workers and cultural venues. Comments made on the questionnaire suggested that link workers were unlikely to approach these settings about how they could be involved in social prescribing. Likewise, it was unlikely for them to be contacted by cultural venues about what they offered that could form part of a social prescription.

It was noted by some respondents that cultural venues may not be acceptable to all older people – they may be associated with elitism, somewhere individuals may not feel they belonged because they were not accustomed to visiting these spaces. However, it was recognised that such spaces had the potential to support health and well-being by being calming environments that could relieve stress and reduce anxiety, where people could be present and reflect, giving them time away from worries in their life. They could also be somewhere that offered opportunities for connection with others – through volunteering, engaging in activities, taking part in a tour.

Using local trusted community or faith groups was one means proposed by questionnaire respondents to overcome the barrier of some older people not feeling that the cultural sector was for them. It was also recommended that participants in cultural activities should be encouraged to lead groups rather than having them facilitated by outsiders. This relates to the issue of not stereotyping older people and what they would be interested in, a point raised in the following comment written by a questionnaire respondent: “Just because people are old does not mean they stop having interests. I believe some activities on offer are not appropriate and treat them as if they are children. We need to not talk down to older people, but be aware that they have had lives and interests before getting older.”

A fuller set of findings will be written up for publication in an academic journal. We would welcome your thoughts on this topic:

 

Stephanie Tierney

stephanie.tierney@phc.ox.ac.uk

Kamal R. Mahtani

kamal.mahtani@phc.ox.ac.uk

 

This research is funded by UKRI/AHRC (AH/V008781/1). The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and not necessarily those of their host institution, organisations mentioned or funding bodies.