In December 2013, I was admitted for surgery, and ended up staying in hospital for eight days. My consultant had gone on annual leave and I was worried I would not get home for Christmas. During my stay on the ward, I discovered that many older women did not want to go home for Christmas as they would be alone. Many of these women were ‘boarded’ out to other wards as the one we were on was closing. It was also the time when Esther Ranzen launched Silverline, and I was heartbroken to hear people’s stories about being alone over Christmas and the cold lonely winter months. I decided then that we as a practice would do something about this.
What we did
As soon as I got home, I started to plan a meal for patients on Christmas day the following year. This also seemed the ideal opportunity to develop patients as volunteers – we sent letters, rang people and anyone who made a complaint was invited to work with us as a patient champion. We initially recruited 19 patients, which has now grown to 39. Through developing the primary care navigator role, we were able to build alliances with Age UK, The Salvaton Army, Older People’s assembly and the Club House, a charity for people with mental health problems, that we use to support social prescribing initiatives like this in the practice.
To get the meal together, we wrote to all the supermarkets in our area, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Costco. Together with friends, family and work colleagues, they supplied food, presents and everything else we would need to make this day special. Patients at the Club House did all the organising and cooking. Staff from the practice, colleagues from the CCG, friends and my children came to help on the day. We had 26 guests ranging from an 18-month-old girl to an 83-year-old woman. We found the guests by asking clinicians and Age UK to identify patients who would be on their own.
This will be an annual event now and we’re expecting 36 patients to attend this year. An anonymous benefactor has given us £15 per guest to buy them all a present. This will supplement the gifts provided by the Salvation Army. Next year we will work with Salford University to evaluate the benefits of Christmas events in the surgery.
Some of the patients who initially became practice champions had endured mental health problems. Many of them now have a positive focus and use GP appointments less. Others now use our support groups and other voluntary organisations instead of relying on 10 minute GP appointments for support. Several patients who attended as guests last year are coming back to help this year so we can support more people who need us.
Our options for social prescribing initiatives like this are increasing as we identify more voluntary organisations who want to work with us and more patients who volunteer to run self-help and befriending groups throughout the year. We use the Christmas dinner and other events like a tea dance and flu fair to link lonely people to community resources. At the flu fair we rent a local church, invite all the volunteer organisations and self-help groups to have stalls, do education on self-help and keeping well in winter – this year one lady who had not been out of the house for two years came along. And we had 250 people at a tea dance to launch our long-term conditions strategy.
It would probably not be feasible for all practices to do this for their patients. However, they can work with voluntary organisations, churches and patients to support organisations in their community to hold Christmas events. Giving people company at Christmas shows the power of social prescribing and asset-based community engagement at its very best.
Sheinaz Stansfield is a practice manager in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.