Doctor prescribes a course to elderly

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Recently FE Focus has reported on the growing belief that learning improves health. Now rural GP Peter Twomey has founded a charity to prove it, writes Andrew Mourant

The rolling mid-Devon countryside, with its red soil and scattered dairy farms looks idyllic. But it isn't hard to imagine the sense of isolation that can grip those living in the folds of the landscape, without a neighbour in sight. As they grow old, they could be excused a feeling that life is passing them by.

Wages are low and transport fragmented in this part of the world, where, less than two years ago, the air was thick with black smoke as thousands of cattle burned in the foot and mouth crisis. The morale, as well as livelihood, of some farming families was destroyed.

Few have taken the pulse of the locality more accurately than Dr Peter Twomey, a GP in Crediton. He understands well the link between mental and physical welfare, and is convinced that educational stimulus could arrest the decline in health of elderly patients. So strong is his belief, Dr Twomey has formed a charity, called Upstream, to do something about it.

He describes it as a healthy living centre "without walls". "We want to bring stimulating creative leisure, learning and social activities into people's homes operating on an outreach basis throughout mid Devon," he said.

He has the backing of health agencies as well as the local community college, Queen Elizabeth's, Crediton, and has secured pound;575,000 of lottery funding. The service is due to go live in April.

Then the hard work will start. Dr Twomey recognises that reaching elderly, introverted people is not straightforward.

"We're not looking for the sort who gets a college prospectus through the door, rings up straight away and signs up for a Tuesday night adult class," he said.

Rather, he is looking to get to someone like one of his patients, a man living in a village without facilities, recently bereaved, who realises he now knows no one - people a health visitor or a district nurse might recognise as being in need of stimulation.

"We're trying to access people who might be frightened by the idea of lifelong learning; those who have an 'it's not for us' attitude," he said.

Dr Twomey wants to prove a simple idea through Upstream: that elderly people with social and educational stimulation become much less of a drain on NHS resources.

He needs to prove the benefits to get more funding in the future and recognises that rigorous research of the effects of Upstream's programme will be essential. This will be conducted by the NHS's Mid-Devon Research Group, working with a number of university academics, Mid Devon Primary Care Trust and the new South West Peninsular Medical school.

Queen Elizabeth's college is offering practical support by giving Upstream a headquarters and making tutors available once the programme develops.

However, principal Richard Norton-Chance bemoans the fact that such a potentially valuable programme does not attract conventional FE funding.

"It's a great pity that in terms of funding, the Learning and Skills Council doesn't have us on its radar," he says. "Social needs are way down its list."

Teaching the elderly in their own homes will be a new experience for lecturers. Dr Twomey anticipates that Upstream will do 25 per cent of its work on this one-to-one basis; with the rest, groups of four to six, getting together communally.

Mr Norton-Chance sees other possibilities. "We are interested in our primary schools being a point of contact for services in the villages," he said. "Families at risk have to use agencies that don't necessarily talk to each other."

Upstream is looking for a further pound;830,000 to keep going over the first five years and establish a sustainable operation. And if it works, Dr Twomey would like to produce a manual that could be used nationally.

"I've been pulling people out of the water for the past 10 years," he said.

"I want to prevent them falling in the first place and stop them getting near. We'd like to see a spiral of activity, so that in time the receivers become the givers and it becomes self-sustaining."

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