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Building meaningful connections

Having meaningful and purposeful connections with people, albeit virtual over the past year, is vitally important in supporting people who find themselves isolated. Martin Routledge of Community Circles explains how their model has adapted during the pandemic and how care providers can incorporate their methods.

Social Care Future quote

Social care is going to need to be very different after COVID-19. We are still going through this horrible pandemic. Vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel and many people are discussing the things they want to do when lockdown is eased. Getting together with loved ones and friends, having meals and drinks out, going on holiday!

We are reflecting on the meaning and purpose that linking through joint endeavours in our work, or leisure activities, gives us. We yearn for connection.

And yet, in all this talk of normality, the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ for many who draw on social care was of a system that didn’t sufficiently value or prioritise these things that make our lives worth living. Since COVID began, images of people restricted from seeing loved ones in care homes, or ‘visiting’ through the window with people trapped in their rooms, have shown us that we are going to have to move more rapidly towards something better. Otherwise, many people face a kind of permanent lockdown – supported to stay alive and safe, but not to pursue the connections and activities that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.

Social Care Future Movement

The Social Care Future movement has been exploring in-depth how the public might respond to a new way of thinking about social care. Research, soon to be published, will show that it looks possible to shift public ideas about social care in ways which could increase both support for investment and for better approaches.

Spreading the circles

Community Circles is an approach that seemed to resonate with the public in the research. ‘Circles’ aim to bring people, resources and support together to keep people connected to the people and things they love. We share methods and experience with others and spread Circles to people who can benefit from them, for example, when Dave’s dementia started to develop and he and Kathryn needed a way to keep life big not small. As well as doing this with people living in their own homes, we have offered support to others living in accommodation with support, such as care homes and extra care housing. Most recently, we have used our learning to support people and public service allies determined to build something different at the wider community level.

We approach how we build community connections from a different angle – starting with people’s interests and potential contributions.

This helps in the following ways:

  • It grounds action in what is important to people, in what they have to offer and in connecting people with shared interests.
  • This reduces the risk of commissioning or setting up something that people don’t want or won’t engage with.
  • It looks at a wider range of assets, bringing more – and new – resources to bear.
  • It releases creativity and contribution in ways that traditionally commissioned or established services may not.

You might be looking at how to intervene to reduce loneliness in a geographical area or exploring how to support people living in accommodation with support to get ‘a life not a service’. You might have decided that traditional, building-based day supports, or short breaks, can be transformed into opportunities for people to pursue opportunities with meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you are focusing on a defined group of people, for example, older people in a specific area who have found themselves isolated and disconnected, with risks to their wellbeing and health. Community Circles has a range of simple but effective methods to find out what they might want to do; an interest or hobby, something they have previously done and miss or something that has arisen in a care plan or ‘one-page profile’. It is crucial at this point to explore what people can contribute to others and activities, not just what they ‘need’, as this can be an asset and encourages people to be far more likely to get involved. Sometimes people have been isolated or disconnected for some time or, for example, they have had a major health issue or bereavement and can find it hard to identify their interests and contribution. We have an approach called ‘good days in the community’ that can help.

This approach, rather than starting by designing a service in response to what a person wants or needs, explores other possibilities:

  • There might be an existing local group that a person might join. If this is the case, the question is, can the person join without support and, if they need some support, who might offer this? For example, it could be a family member, social prescribing link worker or members of a community circle and, if necessary, a paid staff member.
  • If there isn’t an existing group, we first ask, does the interest match the skills and interests of a member of your group or organisation? If it does, you can agree a date/time with the person, find a suitable venue, tell others about the event/meet-up via social media, get started, do a social media post to encourage others to join and build the group.
  • If there is no suitable person within your group or organisation, we explore local partners who may employ or know someone such as an artist or interested volunteer.

Through this process, we can build up a programme of activity which can be available as widely as you want, potentially to everyone within a defined community or based on what matters to a focused community. If necessary, it can start with one person and build from there.

Showing how it’s done

We have been modelling this approach with our partners, Wellbeing Teams, in Abingdon in Oxford and Ashton in Wigan. More recently, we have been working with the Connected Communities programme in Suffolk.

In Abingdon and Ashton, we started with people who used a local homecare service. We wanted to show a new way to expel loneliness, through connecting people based on shared interests and contributions, enabling people to connect with others in their community who enjoy the same things, and creating the conditions for friendship and mutual support. We support people to connect to their purpose, to use their gifts and be active in the causes that matter to them. Community connecting meets social action and mutual support.

We started bringing people together around shared interests and then established monthly programmes of events shaped by the interests of members. Events included coffee club, knit and natter, mindfulness, meals out, cinema trips, craft sessions, book club and walking groups. Whatever ideas or interests people have, we help to support. The groups are a way to keep involved with a favourite hobby or try something new, get together with friends or create opportunities for new connections and relationships.

Because of the pandemic, our face-to-face groups have had to be put on hold for the time-being and that’s where the idea of ‘Circles Connected Facebook Group’ came from; an opportunity to bring people together in one virtual space. Circles Connected started to virtually replicate our face-to-face groups and has now grown to a variety of posts, events and activities, from cocktail making to conversation starters, quiz nights, guitar lessons, virtual tours, photography challenges and everything in between. Hundreds of people have joined. As we move on from the ‘acute’ phase of the pandemic we will offer an increasingly blended set of face-to-face and virtual opportunities.

If the pandemic, and our response to it, has brought one very big elephant into the room it is that connections with meaning and purpose are not ‘nice to haves’, they are the core of what keeps us alive. We have sadly come across service providers who are not able to distinguish between necessary safeguarding and rules and behaviours that risk people effectively dying of loneliness. Brilliantly, others have grasped this challenge and adapted creatively and flexibly to the enormous benefit of the people they support. We can all do this; and we must.

circle connected graphic

Community Circles offers a range of supports including design development and mentoring, workshops and courses and an on-line community of practice. There are free do-it-yourself guides for people and families. We know that many people are thinking and acting in a similar way to us, for more information email  You can also read the Community Circles newsletter for latest updates.

Martin Routledge is Head of Development at Community Circles. Email: Twitter: @mroutled

Have you considered partnering with another organisation to help strengthen connections within the community? Which elements of this model could work for your service? share your views and comments on the article.





About Martin Routledge

Martin Routledge worked for 20 years in councils, higher education, research and the third sector before a series of roles with the English Department of Health (2002-11), during which he steered the development of personalisation and community centred approaches before moving on to lead on person centred care with NHSE. Martin currently provides development support to Community Circles and In Control, chairs a charity support provider, is board member of Think Local Act Personal and is a convenor of Social Care Future.

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April lewis

I am very interested in setting something up for my area Martin, i see the South West has a gap.


Hi April, thank you commenting. I’ve let Martin know of your interest in the project. Best wishes, Olivia

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