Going back a while now, but this is one of those memories that just stays with you: I was due to deliver some training to AgeUK staff, on the publication I had written about putting community development into practice.
It was in Huddersfield and I had made the journey up from Shropshire the night before and got to the venue bright and early. I waited a while, but only one participant turned up – let’s call him Mick! It transpired that a lorry full of gob-stoppers had overturned on the M62 so the only person who travelled by public transport ended up in a one-to-one session with me! I didn’t even know they still made gob-stoppers, but they were a blessing in some ways as the two of us had the luxury of spending the whole day together – real quality time.We put the next few hours to good use – sharing experiences and stories and trying to find some practical solutions.
Mick worked as a ‘leisure and fitness coordinator’. One day, he was visited by 4 women (aged 70+) who told him that they wanted a Tai Chi exercise class to go to. They had talked to other people in their age group and it was a popular idea.
Mick wanted to make sure that anything he arranged was ‘community-led’ so he talked to these women – and others – about the best day of the week, time and location, to hold the classes and he arranged for a trained instructor to deliver them.
The first week was great – about 50 people turned up and seemed to engage happily with the activity.
The following week wasn’t as popular, but was still good, and attracted about 30 older people to the session.
Week 3 was very disappointing and barely made it to double figures, with a downward spiral from there-on-in.
Mick was dispirited and just could not work out what had gone wrong, as he had met the request that came from the older people themselves and consulted them on the practicalities. I asked him if – when the women had first approached him – he had asked them why they wanted Tai Chi classes ……
- Was it primarily about exercise and fitness?
- Was it about relaxation?
- Was it about socialising?
- Was it about learning something new?
- Was it to fill a gap in the timetable?
- Was it because someone had recommended Tai Chi as something to try?
- Or because there had been a television programme about it?
- Or because the neighbouring area had Tai Chi classes?
- Or something else …?
Mick didn’t know, but we could both see that it mattered. We could see a really clear link between process and outcome.
In Mick’s example – his process of checking with older people was great but he didn’t have a clear outcome i.e. he didn’t know why he was doing it, other than people had asked him to. Crucially, we didn’t know WHY this group of people wanted Tai Chi classes, what they hoped to get from them, and so he had never considered, or checked, if that was likely to happen. Huge learning for us both.
Mick and I back-tracked a bit to think about what might happen if we tackled both process and outcome. It made sense to start by thinking about the outcome – what older people want to happen as a result of the activity. We practised with the outcome that “older people network socially and learn more from each other”.
Once we had this in the bag, we discussed ways that this might be achieved. e.g. doing things which will bring people together, encouraging them to talk to each other, creating an atmosphere where people will share ideas and develop trust in each other. To achieve these things, we thought we needed to stimulate discussion and debate, get people interested in others – thinking about their similarities and differences.
- It can be pretty strenuous for older people – so, if they are after gentle exercise, it may not necessarily the best activity.
- It can be delivered ina way which is quite individualised, so if people want a social activity to share with others, it may not necessarily the best activity.
- Tai Chi instructors are very disciplined, so if they deliver in this way and people want an informal, relaxed atmosphere, it may not necessarily be the best activity.
Sticking with the Tai Chi example: if Tai Chi is seen to be strenuous, individualised and disciplined – how could it be delivered in a way which achieves outcomes about networking socially and learning from each other? Sessions could include:
- information about why people practice Tai Chi, the health benefits and the range of movements included
- discussion about Tai Chi, exploring people’s knowledge and experience of China and other martial arts, what makes movements easier to do and what might make them more difficult for some people
- work in small groups, to support each other to understand and practice the movements, encourage people to share their experiences of Tai Chi – and the benefits they have recognised
- visits to other places practicing different types of martial arts, and to a variety of other venues to learn about different ways of exercising
- encouragement to, and opportunity for, older people to shape the direction of the sessions, voicing their interests and requirements and making suggestions for future sessions and other activities
We identified these five different, but inter-linked, ideas by working through the five community empowerment dimensions – which were really helpful
It was a fine day!
Having avoided the gobstoppers, sadly Mick later suffered on the way home as Leeds Train Station was hit by a tornado – it was quite day!
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