Rebuilding Community Connections with Not Another Co-Production Project

| Helen Sturman

Helen Sturman, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire Area Development Manager for Parkinson’s UK, shares her experience of being new in the job when joining Not Another Co-Production Project. She outlines the importance of flexibility when rebuilding community connections with people with long-term health conditions, and how co-production values the range of life experiences, knowledge and skills that people can bring.   

I had just joined Parkinson’s UK as an area development manager, when a colleague emailed me about the opportunity to get involved with the Not Another Co-Production project in Manchester. My job is to understand what local people with Parkinson’s want and need, developing our local plans around this while making sure that local activities and services are co-produced with the community. I saw the project as a great opportunity for me to learn more about best practice for co-production. The project also involved several in-person workshops, which attracted me because my role is home-based and opportunities for “real life” contact with other professionals can be few and far between! 

Taking things back to basics

There hadn’t been anyone working in my role in Greater Manchester for some time, so I knew I needed to take things back to basics and rebuild our community connections. I was also keen to learn how other organisations were working with their local communities post-lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly as older people and people with complex health conditions had been encouraged to stay away from others. Zoom and other online platforms have been fantastic in preventing many people from becoming socially isolated but they’ve also been a huge barrier for those unable to get online themselves.  

Allow space for people to say ‘no’

For co-production with people with Parkinson’s (or any long-term health conditions) to work, flexibility is vital. People have good days and bad days with their health, so I try to make sure people can contribute in a variety of different ways. I’ve also found that it is important to allow space for people to say ‘no’ so that they do not feel pressured to take on more than they want to or are able to. We have some really dedicated volunteers who already do so much and can feel completely overwhelmed at the idea of doing more. 

I have encouraged new people to get involved in our local work, recognising the range of life experiences, knowledge and skills that people can bring and how we should value this. It has been valuable to get to know people, their life histories and what makes them tick — I’ve met talented knitters and painters, ex footballers, professors and former punks! Everyone has something to offer and share with others, but this can sometimes feel difficult when dealing with the symptoms of complex conditions. I want everyone who is affected by Parkinson’s to feel empowered and as if they can shape the support that works best for them. One person with Parkinson’s described it as tipping the seesaw so that things are balanced between professionals and them. 

Parkinson UK’s roots are in local, volunteer-led groups. I’m proud that we continue to have a strong local network in Greater Manchester that provides great support for people living with Parkinson’s and their families. Through listening to local people, key gaps in local services have been identified and I have worked with groups of people to try and resolve these. For example, bringing together patients, NHS physiotherapists and local leisure providers, to work together to develop a range of physical activity opportunities tailored for people with Parkinson’s. 

It takes time to really listen to people, build relationships and work with them in a meaningful way

Despite these achievements, I have found co-production frustrating at times. It takes time to really listen to people, build relationships and work with them in a meaningful way. At the beginning of my new job, I was keen to make a good impression and show that I can deliver and I have often felt like I wasn’t achieving very much! I’ve learnt to leave my own agenda at the door. My role is to work with the Parkinson’s community, to bring people together, facilitate and make things happen, and you can’t leave people behind when doing this! 

While there are huge benefits being part of a national organisation, sometimes our systems and processes don’t always lend themselves to working locally and things can take longer to get up and running than we would like them to or we haven’t been able to get the resources that we need. But I am proud to share that Parkinson’s UK is launching a community grants programme later this year, which will enable us to work together with local people, groups and organisations, to apply for the funding needed to get their ideas and projects to better support people with Parkinson’s off the ground. 

I’m really excited by this as it is the first opportunity I’ve had since working at the charity to be able to directly connect the people with the great ideas to the resources which will help make them a reality. With the grants programme, Parkinson’s UK will be genuinely showing that co-production and collaboration are at the heart of the organisation. We will continue to work with our committed members and supporters while also hoping to engage, inspire and motivate new people to get involved in the organisation and together find shared solutions which achieve better outcomes for people with Parkinson’s. 

Helen Sturman has worked in the charity sector for over 10 years. She is passionate about improving health and social care services and is a former CQC Registered Manager. Helen currently lives in Salford and is an amateur rugby player, saxophonist and baker. To get in touch with Helen, email her by clicking this link.

Photo credit: Torbjørn Helgesen on Unsplash

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