Since launching in 2015, Older & Wiser has worked with 15 partner agencies in the Leicester Ageing Together Programme to tackle isolation and loneliness amongst people over 50. Through collaborative working and pathways our group learning activities have combined with the specialist advice, information and support services offered by partners, to offer a more comprehensive approach to improving the lives of our beneficiaries.

Through promotional activity, tasters and courses we have gradually built awareness of the project. To date, we have engaged with 800 older people across 5 wards and continue to develop productive relationships with community leaders, local businesses and our LAT partners, together with Leicester’s two universities and the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. The benefits of these partnerships are already evident in the improved offering to beneficiaries, for example; in accessing casework support or health checks; and in our enhanced contribution to community development e.g. helping to promote local activities or venues, co-hosting events and promoting a learner ethos of everyone having something to give and something to gain.

Project participants have benefitted from smaller group sizes in many cases and an equal emphasis given to social development alongside subject learning.  This has provided an environment where they can build their confidence, supported by fellow learners and by tutors who promote the “Yes, you can!” ethos whilst constantly adapting pace and content to meet their needs.  Skills in using email and setting up Whatsapp for some groups is also encouraging social and learning connections to continue between classes.  All individuals and groups have been encouraged to develop independent thinking in order to encourage sustainable benefits beyond project end.  Many groups ran self-managed sessions in the summer term and our Pop In Café is transitioning to being run by the members.  Our Celebration of Learning event in July introduced beneficiaries to other Older & Wiser groups and to the wider WEA programme whilst also giving them a platform to share the benefits of their learning.

Whilst our courses and activities have many different features they all share common benefits, as described by our beneficiaries: a reason to get out of the house, increased confidence, new friends, the pleasure of learning something new and the re-discovery of “me”.  Tutors and learners alike also comment on the strength of peer support and the rapid cohesion of groups, with members actively looking out for each other.  Feedback has been obtained through specific consultation events with learners and tutors, project manager termly class visits, course scrap books and the usual WEA reporting systems.           

In the final stage of the project we will be testing out more digital learning options as this has proven so popular and valuable.  We will use this to: further support beneficiaries in maintaining connections with fellow learners: improve their ability to access local activities, learning resources and relevant support services; reduce the level of exclusion and dependence that occurs when unable to use online booking or similar applications.  We will also promote learners’ capacity to continue the benefits of group learning post project through information and training on volunteering, running community groups and how to work with the WEA in planning course provision for their localities.   

Finally, we have been successful in obtaining a small amount of additional funding through LAT to develop a more targeted programme for improved mental wellbeing and will be collaborating with local mental health services to test this out. This work will extend beyond the formal end of the Older & Wiser project but will perpetuate its key values of individuals developing the skills to help themselves and help each other.