Tackling loneliness and social isolation – a creative approach to public participation. Orkney FSF 2019 event.

By Gerd Peters, Scottish Health Council.

Picture the scene. It is 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning in early February in the busy historic harbour town of Stromness on the Orkney Mainland. Huddled around three large, white studio tables in the airy surround of the first-floor activities room at the Pier Arts Centre, a group of 15 men and women from across Orkney are getting to know each other, sharing their expectations on the Fire Starter Festival 2019 in Orkney. Further tables are lined up against the wall, tightly packed with a plethora of arts and crafts materials ready to be used in the creative workshop which is to be at the centre of our event.

With Orkney taking part in the Fire Starter Festival for the second year, the event is aimed at exploring the increasing prevalence of loneliness and social isolation in our island communities, and at building our portfolio of innovative and inclusive formats for community participation in health and social care.

The event is the culmination of a co-operation between the Scottish Health Council’s local office in Orkney, NHS Orkney’s Transformational Change Manager, Christina Bichan, and the Pier Arts Centre’s Participation Manager, Carol Dunbar, who starts proceedings by welcoming participants and outlining the plan for the day.

Setting the scene for our activities, Christina and I follow on by introducing to our participants the two related, but distinct, concepts of ‘loneliness’ and ‘social isolation’ as outlined in the Scottish Government paper, A Connected Scotland. In addition, we explore how communities elsewhere are experiencing similar developments leading to loneliness and social isolation, and how they got together to address the issue.

We encourage participants to draw on their own, personal knowledge and experience of loneliness and social isolation, either as something they have experienced for themselves or have come across among their acquaintances, friends and family.

This personal approach is further encouraged by Christina sharing a moving story of how leading a long, busy and fulfilled life in the community does not by itself protect or immunise an individual from experiencing loneliness at a later stage in their life, and how this can impact severely on the person’s health and wellbeing.

By the end of this first session we have learned a lot, not least through drawing comparison between local experiences here in Orkney and from places as far afield as the Netherlands, Japan and South America.

A break for coffee and biscuits allows for the learning to sink in, before Carol invites the group for a tour of the centre’s current exhibition, taking in the stunning views from the iconic building out onto the working harbour with its lifeboat, mainland ferry, fishing vessels and marine renewables specialist crafts.

The unique location of the centre invites us to link the artefacts inside the exhibition space to the world outside – it challenges us to think how the local environment, our shared sense of place and of home, including the fantastic public buildings and spaces Stromness commands, could be utilised to draw people at risk from becoming isolated right back into the heart of the community.

Inspired by our discoveries from the tour we return to the activities space, where the materials on the side tables now come into their own.

Participants divide into three teams, design ideas are mulled over and agreed upon, and individuals start selecting items from the side tables to give shape to their ideas.

One group settles on a tree design, bringing together concepts such as organic growth, connectedness and the cycle of life with ideas about openness, caring and hospitality into a visually powerful object suffused with symbolic potential.

Another group takes inspiration from the landscape surrounding Stromness by establishing connections between features from Orkney’s unrivalled prehistoric heritage and contemporary notions of time, growth, ascent, enclosure, networking and togetherness. The centre of this design features a needle cushion in the shape of a crimson heart, representing the ambition from the National Outcomes that, “we grow up loved, safe and respected so that we realise our full potential”.

The third group equally takes inspiration from Orkney’s ancient monuments and prehistoric settlements. On their table a multi-textured representation of a giant standing stone takes shape, imbued, as the group explains, with complementary as well as opposing qualities, including surface and depth, concealment and accessibility, multi-coloured and grey, natural and artificial – emotional, genuine, authentic and warm. There is an underlying, almost stark quality to the object taking shape on this table, countering the richness of notions and associations individual group members attach to their representation.

For all of us there has come a moment when we’ve become so engrossed in finding the right material, the appropriate medium, the fitting shape and scale for what we aim to communicate, that familiar certainties and orientations of role and status – of who we are and what others make of us – have been forgotten, replaced instead by the pleasure of working together creatively towards a shared goal, and arriving at a meaningful tangible object taking shape in the process.

Moving between tables I experience a genuine and shared desire to understand one another. There are instances of ‘deep listening’, of sharing insight, seeing alternative perspectives and reaching out. This is inspiring and demonstrably justifies our approach of engaging with a truly diverse group to gain an understanding of a globally recognised challenge, placing it into our own local context.

Before long, it is time for the teams to gather around, present their models and talk us through the aims and merits of their designs. Despite the differences in approach taken today, the resulting objects share a sense of place, of tradition and of community which pervades that which is specific to individual experiences and connects the designs.

Coming together as a group our participants have learned about a global issue affecting health and wellbeing. Interactively, and drawing on lived experience, we have identified local impact and potential public assets in place already that could be mobilised to address loneliness and social isolation in our communities. In addition, we have demonstrated that locating public engagement in a creative space and inviting participants to become involved in activities not commonly associated with service development can be a productive and inspiring experience for all. Our event team from three different organisations already looks forward to participating in another Fire Starter Festival in 2020.

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