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Making the most of community and connections in retirement

Our Engaged Lives project is a drive to build stronger communities and connections for ExtraCare residents.

Funded by the National Lottery, we have been bringing residents together into small peer-support groups. Here, residents explore a range of topics that support more “engaged lives” in older age – lives of immersive, purposeful activity. Over six weeks, those attending find ways to help each other and discuss themes like Keeping Mobile, Building Resilience, Positive Ageing and Giving Back.

Here Rachel Stephens, 86, discusses taking part in a group in Bournville Gardens, and what it brought to her experience as an ExtraCare resident.

What expectations did you have before joining our Engaged Lives group?

Really, I came along to check how well my mind was working. I’m interested in current affairs, and I love discussions, so I attended to help me stay mentally agile and engaged.

Do you find being around other people is a good way to do that?

Absolutely, that’s been my life. I’ve travelled a lot around the world. I’ve been a teacher and worked in international affairs and development. I taught in Ghana for 6 years. It’s all made me aware of and appreciate so much that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

How do you find the community here?

We have such a fantastic community here. The things people have done, in their working life! We have glider pilots, people who’ve migrated here from the Caribbean, Australia, Japan. All sorts!

Making the most of community and connections in retirement

Rachel Stevens, ExtraCare Resident

Casting your mind back to our “Engaged Lives” group, we had a real variety of people there too – residents from varied backgrounds and different obstacles to staying connected. What did you find most valuable talking with these people about how to sustain community in older age?

Firstly, it made me appreciate the different backgrounds that people living here have come from and the different reasons why it can be challenging to join a large community. I’ve reflected on that, and it really makes me appreciate the folk who are here and how some people struggle in ways that I don’t know anything about. You don’t often find a group with so many differences coming together like that and able to talk openly about their feelings and their challenges.

We spent a lot of time talking about the challenges people face to staying engaged and connected. Did hearing about other’s experiences of these help you feel closer to them?

I’d say instead that I appreciate them more. I appreciate how they’ve struggled and come through. I didn’t know some people in the group at all. But now we’ve been able to talk, it feels like a new group of friends who I’m more comfortable speaking with.

It’s much easier to go up and talk when you know a bit about people’s lives. They’re no longer just people with specific issues and labels, but people with a story I can understand. Learning to value what’s around us – people’s experiences and potential – that’s what was great about the group.

Each week we discussed a different topic to help us stay connected. For example, we spent a week exploring how we could help ourselves and each other to stay more “resilient” in older age. Did any of those topics stand out as particularly useful?

When we discussed resilience, I realized that I didn’t have a lot of adversity in my life. Good things seemed to happen! I got a scholarship early in life, which opened things that might not have been possible otherwise. But thanks to hearing people’s stories in the group, I realize that some have it tough right from the early years. It made me realize how sometimes it’s possible for me to underestimate what someone I’m meeting has achieved, because they’ve come from a very different baseline, and they’ve had to make life the way it is for them now.

Did being in the group change your behaviours at all? Or the way you think about community?

It’s made me more willing to sit and chat with people in the village that I don’t know well, especially people on their own. I don’t necessarily think we’ll form great friendships, but we’ll appreciate each other and that’s important. Getting to know people in the village is crucial. I’ve always tried to do some of that, but I don’t feel that I must talk to everyone, because my range of interests and conversation is not the ordinary one!

What kind of people would you recommend the Engaged Lives group to?

It’s great for people who want more tools to help them sustain relationships and interests into older age, especially single people. I’ve discussed the sessions with another lady from the group – we’re both grateful for what we’ve learnt and now it’s up to us to put it into action!

I’d also recommend the group to people who want to learn a bit about themselves. We were able to help each other identify the fact that we were all already very competent, in our own ways. We all lose things as we get older, though we talked about how we can retain as much as possible that’s important to us, find different ways of getting to know people, and appreciate that everyone is going the same way in the process of ageing – you don’t generally talk about that to the average person.


Steps to Connection

Older people across the country can now benefit from a book, based on our Engaged Lives groups. Developed as part of ExtraCare’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Steps to Connection is an interactive, step-by-step guide to finding greater community for those aged 55+.