How have rural areas been transformed by Rural Wisdom?
Bringing ideas to life
Like many development projects in the UK, the aim of Rural Wisdom has been to reduce social isolation and loneliness for older people. However, Rural Wisdom differs from other projects of this kind, due to its unique blend to community development and volunteering led by older people in local communities.
Rural Wisdom recognized from the outset that there are more older people living in rural communities than other areas of the UK, who contribute a lot to their communities (time, energy, experience and ideas) and want to make changes for the better, (as rural policies don’t always think about older people and older people’s policies don’t always think about rural issues), but don’t always know where to start or how to bring ideas to fruition.
The role of Rural Wisdom Development Workers was therefore to approach rural communities in Scotland and Wales ‘with an open book of blank pages’ (in the words of one Scotland-based Development Worker) to be filled with ideas, dreams and aspirations for those communities, as envisaged by its members.
Being able to approach communities with both an offer of support and funding to bring both old and new ideas to life led to some ‘beautifully warm conversations’ (Development Worker, Wales), that sowed the seeds of relationships that have remained in place throughout the 5 years of the project (2017 – 2022).
This way of working led to numerous activities taking shape and transforming small but important parts of Rural Wisdom communities across Scotland and Wales. These have been widely documented elsewhere, but include a community café in Leeswood, Flintshire that was set up and run by local residents, the development of a ‘What’s on’ event listing to connect the residents of Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, the intergenerational work done to connect residents of sheltered accommodation and children at a local school in Eaglesham and Waterfoot, East Renfrewshire, supporting local shops and businesses in Highland Perthshire to become more accessible, and the introduction of community activities in North Angus that has led to greater connections.
Developing community resilience
Whilst doing this work, little did any of the Development Workers know that the connections they were making was laying the foundations for their COVID-19 Pandemic response.
In March 2020 when COVID-19 hit the UK, Rural Wisdom’s work as it had been known stopped overnight. The possibility of doing community development work was not only taken away, but the very meaning of what ‘community development’ was, was brought into question as well.
But, after adjusting and regrouping, the Development Workers focused their attention to maintaining old connections and fostering new ones, supporting digital inclusion and offering any support they could practicably provide to ensure individuals and communities had all they needed to get through the pandemic. This included, continuing to circulate information and guides about what services and support were available, check-ins with people over the phone, and connecting people who needed shopping doing or prescriptions collecting with volunteers who were able to run these errands.
Nurturing whole community connections
One of the biggest changes to rural communities during the height of the pandemic, was the shift in who was around in those communities during the week. With the majority of the school and working age population either forced to study/work from home or on furlough, there were more people in rural communities than usual. In many instances, the older people in these communities became seen as assets by the ‘new’ members of these communities as, thanks to Rural Wisdom, they were well connected and knew what services were available and how to access them.
This shift in perceptions, in many instances, been transformational and has outlasted the height of the pandemic. The majority of school and working age members of society have now returned to school and work so are not around as much as they were, but the intergenerational connections have remained in place. This has led to many sustainable community activities, such as the recent climate-friendly Scarecrow Festival in The Scottish Borders, taking place that will hopefully become traditions that continue for many years to come as they require little organizing but provide enjoyment and space for all in a community to socialise and connect.