With a wealth of life and professional experience, older people could hold the key to revitalising rural communities, researchers say.

An international research project is to use an innovative structured technique known as 'guided conversations' as part of a toolkit designed to find out what older people in rural communities want and need. Researchers will then help communities design and set up solutions to their problems using the voluntary, public and private sectors.

The project, titled Healthy Ageing through Innovation in Rural Europe (HAIRE), has won a grant of 5.3 million euros (£4.5m) from the EU to work in eight rural communities – two each in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK (Feock in Cornwall and Rother in East Sussex).

HAIRE is a collaboration involving 15 partners across the four countries. It will make use of the University’s knowledge and experience in health innovation projects across rural communities in the South West of England, improving health and care quality, and helping create an economy of wellbeing.

Associate Professor of Digital Health and Education, Dr Arunangsu Chatterjee is the University’s lead for HAIRE. He said:

“HAIRE provides us with an exciting opportunity to collaborate across the channel with countries facing similar challenges. The project will enable us to share and learn from each other how best to co-design localised solutions to improve health and wellbeing in our ageing communities.”

Professor Catherine Leyshon from the University of Exeter is overall project lead. She said:

“In Europe, the US and many other countries, populations are ageing, leading to a host of issues ranging from pressure on health services to increased isolation and loneliness.
“This situation is especially acute in rural communities, many of which are at risk of dying out. The challenge for many societies is to manage the needs of the ageing population while encouraging healthy ageing and realising the potential of older people, which has been overlooked.”

The project team will encourage rural and coastal communities to:

  • define what support they need
  • participate in the co-design and delivery of services
  • develop cost effective solutions for themselves to reduce loneliness and improve quality of life, health and wellbeing

Initiatives might include community transport schemes, starting new clubs and societies, and bringing together the younger and older generations.

Volunteers will be trained to identify their underused community assets and networks and conduct guided conversations with about 600 people (aged 60+ and no longer in employment) across the eight communities in the study, finding out how people feel about their lives and the place in which they live.

While contributing to a number of workstreams, the University will lead the development of the toolkit – a set of steps that could be used in similar communities elsewhere to identify innovations that will improve people’s health and wellbeing.

The project is funded by Interreg 2 Seas, which promotes territorial cooperation between the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

HAIRE will build upon Centre of Health Technology projects like eHealth Productivity and Innovation in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (EPIC) to expand the concept of 'social prescribing' using community platforms beyond the South West. Social prescribing involves health professionals enabling patients and the public to improve their mental and physical health through signposting to social activities, such as joining a walking group. HAIRE also builds on previous work done by University colleague Professor Ray Jones as part of the Innovation for Healthy Ageing project.

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Dr Chatterjee and the HAIRE team expect that training local volunteers will begin a process in which knowledge about social innovation will spread from the project areas to neighbouring communities. The aim, Dr Chatterjee says, is to “foster a sustainable economy of wellbeing in resource constrained rural and coastal communities.”

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