Anne Connor, Chief Executive, Outside the Box (lead partner)
Rural Wisdom is exploring how rural communities in Scotland and Wales can work as people get older. Our outcomes include older people having a stronger voice, shaping the way their communities work, and influencing policies and practice. We began in early 2017 and our plans for 2020 were moving on developments in local areas, networking with what is happening elsewhere and leading into a final year of sharing what we achieved and learned. There is more at www.ruralwisdom.org
Like everyone else, our plans changed significantly in March 2020. This is how we adapted and what we learned.
The first stage was changing how we engaged with older people in the local communities. Volunteering Matters leads the development work in Wales, and most of the work is supporting and managing volunteer-led activities. The priority here was keeping these services going, making sure people felt supported through some unprecedented challenges, and responding to the additional and different needs Covid created. Planned community development work around Rural Wisdom in our target locations paused, while the team maintained connections until the time was right.
In Scotland, Outside the Box focuses on community development work, and contacts with local people stopped as people concentrated on what was needed for them and their families and neighbours. But then people started picking up on the issues that were important before – like reducing fuel poverty, creating more opportunities for social connections – and the ones that were becoming more prominent now. In both areas we found new challenges in responding to a wider range and faster pace of requests and ideas and sometimes it felt hard to keep up and meet people’s expectations.
We found that we could adapt and support local people as community activists. Restrictions meant more was happening digitally, and older people got involved in conferences and meetings that previously would be too difficult. People also had more connections with other Rural Wisdom areas – people in Moray met people in Pembrokeshire to learn about community transport, for example, and these could be several conversations because travel was no longer a factor.
Development workers made phone calls, zoom calls and then met with people on benches to plan tactics for raising issues as well as getting local Covid response activities going in villages. We moved money planned for events and publications into zoom licenses, printing newsletters for every house in an area, and kitting out phone boxes that became the exchange point for books, dvds, food and more. We made little film clips and newsletters to show how we were responding to Covid and they reached more people and encouraged more good ideas and partnerships.
Some of the developments that have come from this strange year have been more than we could have expected in previous times. As a few examples:
- The older people in Moray found others in their community who wanted to get transport connections between the coastal villages, found a vehicle that wasn’t being used and now have a community bus service that is enabling people of all ages to travel to a nearby town, including getting to the GP for their Covid vaccines, and much more.
- People made a butterfly garden at the community centre at Holway.
- We found a new way to encourage older people who were very cautious about digital things to get started, and now people are connected with family, friends and their wider communities in ways that will last well into the future.
- We are involving more people in the pulling together stage of the evaluation, making it more participative.
- We fed the experience of older people in rural areas into planning for Covid responses and now the Recovery stage in Scotland and Wales.
As a team with part-time workers scattered across Wales and Scotland, we found the early move to home working and sudden new workloads a challenge, but then the digital contacts helped us be more connected. We started regular sessions for the whole development team to support each other and find new ways to tackle emerging challenges. This led to our biggest annual gathering of local partners and activists across Rural Wisdom and they came up with more ideas for a stronger final year’s activities through digital workshops than we initially envisaged.
We also learned to adapt to the hard times. We lost more friends in communities this year than ever before, as well as members of the staff team’s families, and we supported communities through their bereavements. Like many older people, the people we know through Rural Wisdom find the restrictions on social contacts and increased social isolation difficult. We are also finding that older people feel more marginalised, seen as people who need protecting. The message from the people and communities we know is that there is a lot more still to do to tackle stigma, whether intended or not, and show the contribution and strength of older people.
Through all of this, it has been very helpful to have the flexibility and support from the National Lottery Community Fund. Rural Wisdom was often the first point people in the communities came to, and they valued responses that started activities, encouraged other partners to get involved and then take things on, and made the case for spin-off developments. This was so much easier in the context of the Accelerating Ideas programme that understands innovation.
Overall, we’ve learned that there are many strengths in a diverse team, as the different experiences and skills helps us find more solutions to the recent and continuing challenges. We’ve also found that investing in the capacity of people and of small communities has huge benefits when they need to be resilient and creative, and the earlier work really paid off. We’re looking forward to this coming year and know Rural Wisdom has a lot to contribute.