Team Works

A unique project that links the elderly and isolated with a local rugby club has proved highly successful. So why is it no longer being funded, asks Gary Ryan

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A group of elderly people shuffle into Rotherham Titans rugby union club. They weren’t fans of the sport until they were referred here as part of a unique experiment in social prescribing. As they mix with the mountainous protein shake-guzzling players, the atmosphere is raucous. Marion Rayner – 62, and sporting a multi-coloured replica club shirt – leads boisterous chants of “We are the Titans! The mighty, mighty Titans!” She’s joined in the rallying by her husband, Pete, 69 – brandishing an outsized flag – and two cohorts, 82-year-old Grace Thompson, gripping a walking frame, and Val Deakin, 73, in a wheelchair. 

Their cacophonous chanting will be familiar to visiting fans on match-days. It’s earned them the affectionate nickname of the Conservatory Choir – referencing the area they sit in. As match-day captain Tom Holmes puts it: “How many elderly people can say they socialise with a rugby team where the average age is probably 22?”

Two years ago, Grace Thompson’s GP suggested 15 weeks at the club in a bid to curb social isolation and loss of confidence. Recommending non-medical methods to tackle health problems is known as social prescribing.

She lived alone (she now has a dog, Alfie – named after Titan Alfie To’oala) and, like over four million over-65s in the UK, according to a survey for Age UK, she considered the television to be her main source of company. She remembers how, one Christmas, she started saving up her prescription medication – because she’d had enough of life. “I was really low,” she bristles. “I didn’t want to live. I just didn’t know anybody. Loneliness is a terrible thing. I’ll talk to anybody. Why should nobody want to talk to me?

“If the doctor hadn’t referred me here, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. I think these lads are brilliant,” she adds, gesturing to the beefy squad. “Better than any family I ever had.”

Married for 11 years, the Rayners first started coming a year ago when their social worker urged them to get out more, while Deakin – who lost one leg to diabetes – says the Titans helped her deal with the grief of losing her husband. After initial funding under social prescribing, the Rotherham Titans Elderly Supporters Group’s contract came to an end last year. Thompson, Deakin and the Rayners now each pay £15 per week to cover costs. This fee includes a meal and a ticket to Saturday’s game.

“For people who are isolated, attending a big game with 2,500 people can be intimidating,” points out John Lewis, Titans chief executive. “We had one lady who hadn’t been out of the house for four years before she came to us. Grace is partially sighted so most of the time she can’t see what is going on and she’s responding to what’s happening in the crowd. But it’s a new interaction and the transformation you see is incredible. We’ve had people tell us it’s changed their lives. It was Grace who said: ‘I’ve now got a purpose in life. I want to get up in the morning, whereas before I wanted to put my head in the oven.’

“The reason it works is because the directors want this to be a proper rugby club that is seen as a community asset, not just a sports club. They sit in the Conservatory and Marion leads the chanting – they really lift the place. When we played Doncaster, they received a round of applause.”

The club, riding high in the second tier of the rugby union system, the RFU Championship, operates a community foundation, where players are contractually obligated to undertake at least four hours community service per week. Tom Holmes, 25, towering at 6’5” and weighing in at 114kg, almost acts as a surrogate son as he enquires about Deakin’s health. “Have you made an appointment about your leg?” he gently nudges. “If you don’t, I’m going to go down to your GP and make one myself.”

“I want to get up in the morning, whereas before I wanted to put my head in the oven.”

He adds: “They feel like family now. You worry. When you get older, a simple cold can easily turn into something more serious. When Grace wasn’t here for three weeks [while she received treatment for cancer], we spoke to her on the phone. People don’t know their neighbours anymore; there’s less chance of them looking in on the elderly. The benefits of this are clear: it causes less isolation and GPs have found it leads to fewer prescriptions.”

Deakin has also seen the deleterious effects of weakening community ties and people living atomised lives. “There’s nobody to look in on us now,” she sighs. “The neighbours we have now, they’d throw stones at your window rather than look at you.”

Clifton Lane, home of the Rotherham Titans since the 1930s, is located in a deprived area. Michael Sylvester, Titans events manager, notes that the town has been marred by a succession of scandals, its name now synonymous with rampant child sexual exploitation and council corruption.

“For five decades now, the only headlines about Rotherham have been negative. Pit closures, we were once named the teenage pregnancy capital of the UK. It’s important people see that good things happen here.

“We have a history of social inclusion. We were one of the few towns where the secondary modern – and not the grammar school – played rugby. Up here, it was a working class game whereas in other places it was a sport for toffs. When we used to play other clubs, they’d say: ‘Oh Rotherham, you’re the ones turning rugby working class.’ For any charity, hire of the function rooms are free. It’s about giving something back.”

Government research shows that loneliness can be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, while Alzheimer’s becomes more prevalent when connections are cut. The IPPR thinktank predicts that 25 per cent of older people will be childless by 2030, leading to a lack of adult children able to keep an eye on their relatives. In our society, old people are often marginalised and viewed in the abstract, but the reality is they are our future, our inevitable destination. Social prescribing is seen by some as one solution.

Over 3,000 patients (on average 120 per month) have been referred for a social prescription – funded by the local clinical commissioning group and co-ordinated by Voluntary Action Rotherham – since the start of the programme in the town in 2012. An evaluation by the Centre For Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University of the pilot phase of the service found that it had both positive social and economic impacts. Using data for people referred up until the end of January 2014, it said inpatient admissions and outpatient appointments had been reduced by 21 per cent, and accident and emergency attendances cut by 20 per cent.

“It would be nice if we could get more encouragement or even just a thank you.”

Gordon Laidlaw, a CCG spokesperson, is keen to stress the benefits of social prescribing. “It provides a win-win for all involved. We like it as it addresses inappropriate admissions into hospital. GPs like it as it gives them an option apart from referral to hospital or to prescribe medication. It provides the voluntary and community sector with support for their sustainability and, more importantly, patients and carers tell us they love it as it improves their quality of life, reduces social isolation and moves the patient from dependence to independence.”

As the Titans contract with the CCG came to an end last November, numbers have unsurprisingly diminished. It used to operate two groups per week – now it’s just Tuesdays. But there’s no doubting the fierce, unshakable devotion of those who attend – and how it has improved their lives. “It’s definitely something I’d like to see funding for,” says Holmes. “It would be nice if we could get more encouragement or even just a thank you. Even just some acknowledgement that good things happen in Rotherham.”

Laidlaw says the CCG wanted to target funding on new referrals rather than continue to pay the Titans group. “The club made the choice to continue running the established self-funding group rather than start a new cohort as well.”

As the heated quiz gets underway (“We all cheat,” laughs Marion Rayner as they swap answers over who played Claude Jeremiah Greengrass in 1990s ITV drama Heartbeat), Thompson leans in and whispers that she’s only missed a few sessions – due to treatment for cancer. “They’re shrinking the Big C back as much as they can. If I lose my hair, I’ll get a wig. Coming here gives me the courage to fight it. I look forward to it all week. There’s no one else I could have talked to about it. I keep telling myself I can fight this on my own – but then I think: ‘I shouldn’t have to.’

“If they ever tried to stop this, I’d chain myself to the pitch.”

*Following our visit to Rotherham Titans, Val Deakin sadly passed away.

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