This case study exemplify one or more of the Principles of Excellence that was identified during the research and engagement work of the Commission on the Role of housing in the future of care and support.
Introduction and overview
Initially funded by the Big Lottery Silver Dreams Fund, Silverlinks was a Care & Repair England initiative which ran for four years from April 2014 to March 2018. It was hoped that following this, the project model would be adopted by a range of different organisations working with older people across England. The key objective of the scheme was to enable older people, who are facing life-changing choices about their homes and living situations, to make well-informed decisions about what is right for them. Silverlinks projects were delivered in seven areas spread right across England. Workshops and awareness-raising events were also delivered in a wide range of other locations.
Silverlinks aimed to enable older people by:
- Connecting older people who are facing housing changes, or sometimes a housing crisis, with older people who have already faced and dealt with a similar situation
- Spreading information and raising awareness about later life options and the potential availability of housing and related services along with professional advice. This is particularly important for people who are not yet ready to make significant life changes but who benefit from knowing who to contact for advice and support should the time come when they need this.
After two years in operation 2,494 older people had been directly involved in project activities and of these 85% reported improved ability to plan ahead, 92% improved knowledge of where to go for information & advice.
Care & Repair England’s National Older People’s Housing Champions group was closely involved in shaping and overseeing the programme. Small grants for local activities were also used to enable active participation by older people and smaller local groups in the project roll-out. Other active partners included:
Improving outcomes by sharing information and raising awareness
Silverlinks has produced multiple free online fact and information sheets which address various housing challenges and decisions older people may face. In partnership with Carers UK, Silverlinks has also produced a guide for carers. ‘Thinking Ahead’, a downloadable ‘teach yourself’ booklet which people can work through online is also available. The booklet can help people to understand what housing and care options may be available to them in later life, and includes practical activities and checklists for people who want to start thinking ahead. Workshops and information talks were also held in local areas. These workshops were delivered by a mix of paid workers, freelance trainers and local Silverlinks volunteers.
The West of England Care & Repair building incorporates a ‘home independence centre’ – a showroom with examples of equipment and adapted kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms and bedrooms. Here, the Silverlinks coordinator delivered the main part of the workshop, and as part of this a volunteer gives a short talk about their own related experience of, for example, moving home or having adaptations installed. The volunteer then takes the group around the centre where they show different examples of aids and adaptations available.
An interim evaluation of Silverlinks (2016) found that the majority of older people who participated in housing & care in later life talks, events and workshops reported that the information and insight they had gained made them feel better able to plan ahead and manage change as and when necessary.
As well as providing information and advice, Silverlinks has offered practical support to older people on how to access information online. Ellie is 82 and volunteered for the Silverlinks project in Hackney. She was supported to learn how to use the internet on a tablet, and then took the tablet and her knowledge out into the local community to support other older people with using the internet to find information on housing and care on the Silverlinks website.
Reducing isolation through connecting older people
Access to information is only part of the story. Advice tailored to a particular person’s circumstances is a critical next step in effective decision-making and peer support was an important element of the work of Silverlinks. Volunteers were available to visit someone at home, speak to them on the phone or meet in a mutually convenient location such as a local café. The volunteers were able to signpost people to local housing and care services, such as those run by local Care & Repairs or Age UK, for practical help where needed. They were also able to offer a listening ear and share their own experiences of dealing with challenges around housing and care. The interim report on Silverlinks (2016) found that where older people progressed to a one-to-one discussion with an older volunteer, 25% adapted their home, 30% repaired or improved the home and 42% decided that they wanted to move home.
Who better to offer advice, counselling and mentoring help than other older people, acting as volunteers, who have experienced the same decisions and dilemmas?
Mark talks about the rewards of volunteering with Silverlinks
‘We recently did a “ward round” style drop in visit to Lings Bar hospital. I remember that my mum was in there after being discharged from the Queen’s Medical Centre here in Nottingham. The lack of suitable housing and care and the “bed blocking” issue are among the big quality issues I am really interested in. On the day we visited the wards it was so rewarding to just chat to people who may feel isolated and frightened being away from home and not knowing exactly what is going to happen. My Mum had me to help her, but sometimes the standard of care fell short … there are older, vulnerable people out there … who just need a word of advice or someone they can just talk to about what is worrying them.’
Personally, Silverlinks has taught me such a lot and given me a confidence to bring awareness to older people I meet at groups, activities and in everyday life.
Mary Clark, Nottingham Silverlinks coordinator at Age UK Notts, first met her client Cyril at her weekly city centre Housing & Care Options drop-in service.
Mary took a history from Cyril, a charismatic, articulate 82-year-old ex-miner who had been caring for his partner of many years, who had recently been diagnosed with dementia. Insurmountable wider family issues quickly culminated in him having to leave the person he loved and, crucially, his home, which he did not legally own. After a brief stay at a friend’s house, Cyril found himself un-intentionally homeless, preferring to sleep in his car than engage with local authority homelessness services.
After building up a trusting relationship, Cyril allowed Mary, then others to help him. He now lives in a beautiful secure centrally located almshouse flat for older people, close to family, friends and amenities. He often says he will never forget the help he was given and the people who gave it when he needed it most.
I’m happy. I’ve a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in which I didn’t have before.
Improving wellbeing through offering practical support
One of the challenges that Silverlinks workers and volunteers came across is that some older people feel they have too much ‘stuff’ to enable them to make decisions about their housing. Having too many possessions in the home can cause health issues, in terms of mental health, isolation and depression, and physical issues from increasing risk of falls and fire. Sometimes clutter can be a major barrier to people making positive decisions about their living situation or having improvements made to their home.
Where you live as you get older is a major determinant of your quality of life.
For some people the problem is ‘where to start’. Silverlinks offered support to people with the process of decluttering their homes, providing both practical and emotional support for what can be a very difficult process.
Evelyn is 83 and lives in a three-storey, four-bedroom Victorian house that she shared throughout their marriage with her husband of 54 years, until his death. The house was cold, unsafe and needed some urgent repairs. This, coupled with mounting paper work and the number of possessions in the house, left Evelyn feeling overwhelmed and unable to manage. A Silverlinks volunteer, called Rose, visited Evelyn and talked with her about her situation. Rose asked the Housing Options Adviser to visit to discuss possible solutions for Evelyn. As a result of this meeting, Evelyn was referred to several services offered by the Silverlinks agency and urgent repairs were made to the roof, kitchen, bathroom and central heating system. Evelyn also accepted help in de-cluttering her home, for which Rose provided emotional and practical support.
Evelyn decided to stay in her home as she has good friends and neighbours nearby. The changes to the home helped her to continue to live in her home independently, safely and well. However, Evelyn’s health continues to decline, and she is starting to think again about the possibility of moving. She says, “It is reassuring to know that someone is available for advice… I didn’t know what was available”. Evelyn is now a Silverlinks volunteer.
Sometimes changes need to happen gradually and volunteers are there to support people on their journey.
Conclusion and key learning
Lack of funding, coupled with the impact of the pandemic, has meant that the Silverlinks services have ceased, or shrunk to a limited level. However, the Commission recognises that important lessons on enabling choice and control, improving wellbeing and reducing isolation can still be learnt from this example of promising practice. The interim evaluation of Silverlinks (2016) offers helpful insight.
Key findings include:
- The Silverlinks programme highlighted that there is great demand for impartial, accessible information about housing and care options in later life, among a wide spectrum of older people from all ages, social groups and geographical locations.
- The model of peer-to-peer transfer of information resulted in a high level of engagement and trust. It was found to work best where volunteers had clear boundaries and knew that they could direct people who faced personal difficulties and challenging situations to an expert adviser or support worker.
- There were challenges. Local agencies that had not worked with volunteers before took longer to set up and deliver the project initially. Challenges included workers being concerned that they did not fully understand the role of the Silverlinks volunteer and that it may overlap with their paid role. There was also concern that a volunteer may attempt to give advice beyond their scope. This was overcome by good volunteer and worker joint training which both clarified roles, built skills and cemented working relationships.
The Silverlinks model of peer support backed up with professional advice and guidance is a good example of promising practice which could be replicated by other organisations. It also highlights the importance of secure, longer-term funding for projects which are seen to be meeting the needs of older people.
Post pandemic, it would be highly timely to reinvigorate this provision, applying the successful model that combines national information, local advice provider and older volunteer awareness raising.
The Silverlinks model of peer support, self-help and encouragement to think and plan ahead for later life is a timely way to expand the capacity of providers, whilst recognising that this is a complementary function which only works if there are skilled, knowledgeable advisers available to back up older volunteers.