Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer

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Northumberland’s good news on volunteer recruitment

Carolyn Reynolds tells us about successful volunteer recruitment in Northumberland:

When we at Age UK Northumberland were planning the launch of our Cancer, Older People and Advocacy project in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, we knew we’d be looking for some pretty special volunteers with the skills and experience to help us really deliver.


We thought carefully about our approach to recruitment for the three very different areas of the very large and diverse area we have to cover.  We’re starting in the North of the county where there’s lots of gorgeous rurality and coastline (and plenty of sheep), but not much in the way of transport links – support services are pretty thinly spread.

Fortunately our local press is very well regarded and popular so it made sense to hatch a plan with one local journalist to interest him in the project. It wasn’t difficult. This is a human interest story touching the lives of a great many local readers, so he was keen to help.

So we put together a feature which brought together the local people who were running the project, some great photographs, a case study which explained exactly why the service is so important, and a story from our Project Manager explaining exactly the sort of people and experiences that would make for a brilliant volunteer team. I made it as easy as possible for the journalist to put together a decent feature without having to do too much extra work or research.


To our huge delight, we were given a whole page to feature the story in two titles, the Northumberland Gazette and Berwick Advertiser. Both Alnwick and Berwick are community focussed market towns, home to lots of early retired people.  However, competition for good volunteers can be particularly fierce. We didn’t want to poach from other organisations, but we knew there would be other good people out there.

Now for the good news – our plan worked! We were delighted to see a full page of coverage in our target geographical area, and a week later 12 volunteers had come forward. They’re a really diverse bunch but happily each and every one is exactly the sort of volunteer we had hoped to attract. People who’ve had personal experience of cancer and of caring for people with cancer. People who’ve recovered from cancer and who want to give something back. People who really understand some of the difficulties people coping with a cancer diagnosis face.

Gazette photo

Of course, one size won’t fit all when it comes to volunteer recruitment in other areas of Northumberland. I’ve got alternative plans to attract volunteers in the very different demographic of the urban south of the county which is one of the UK’s most deprived ex-industrial areas and in the rural west – farming communities and commuter belt villages.

But for now, we have friendly journalists on board who are delighted to continue to report on our progress in at least one of our target areas. Result!

Carolyn Reynolds, Volunteer Co-ordinator, Age UK/Macmillan Cancer, Older People and Advocacy Project


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Are Health Professionals advocates for their patients?

Undoubtedly they are and Professor Sir Michael Marmot tells us why in his forward to the March 2013 report from UCL Institute of Health Equity: Working for Health Equity: The Role of Health Professionals, ‘action on the social determinants of health should be a core part of health professionals’ business, as it improves clinical outcomes, and saves money and time in the longer term.  But, most persuasively, taking action to reduce health inequalities is a matter of social justice.’

He continues: ‘The medical and health professions are well placed to take action on the social determinants of health – they are trusted, expert, committed, and great powerful advocates.’


Interestingly some health professionals working in the field of cancer have told us that because they advocate on behalf of their patients they cannot see a need for our service.  Once we have explained the role of independent peer advocacy they can see how it complements and strengthens the work that they are doing.

Volunteer peer advocates offer their support in the community and can spend time with people in their own home.  The volunteer, as a lay person, is on an equal footing with the person they support – they are working in partnership.  The volunteer can stay the journey with their partner and accompany them to hospital if needed, during different phases of treatment.  The volunteer can provide printed information on treatment and care options and then put the pamphlet aside, discuss the information and revisit the discussion until their partner feels comfortable with it and clear on their options.  Above all the volunteer has time, time to listen while their partner works through their feelings and prepares themselves for the next step.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Cancer Advocacy

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Report: “When bees meet trees”

I read a fascinating blog recently by Owen Jarvis published by the Clore Social Leadership Programme. In ‘When Bees Meet Trees’, Jarvis argues that major funders have a critical role to play in building collective approaches to social problems.

The Clore Social Leadership Programme

Funders have the ability to design their programmes so that organisations work together as a community with a common goal. Some people call this “collective impact networks”.
As Ruth Marvel says, large organisations, ‘trees’, feel they have to do everything themselves – including social innovation. This doesn’t play to their strengths.
They can achieve social mission and find new ideas more effectively if they supported the work of others, “bees”. These are smaller groups like OPAAL, entrepreneurs and charities – nimble, creative and fast-moving, often lacking size and impact.
This support can include investment. However, the strengths of “trees”, working nationwide, strong brands, networks and influence, can be used to encourage adoption of new ideas by government, the public and other organisations.

Our Cancer, Older People and Advocacy project is one example, and has shown that large charities like Macmillan Cancer Support can play different roles in supporting individual organisations to overcome competition to work collectively.

We are very lucky having Macmillan’s support. In addition to funding us they play a very special role in making their many specialist staff available to us providing OPAAL with a readily accessible ‘extended family’ of experts to support our work to improve the lives of many older people struggling with the impact of a cancer diagnosis and the effects this has on everyday life.


We are currently reaching the end of a six months programme bringing together 24 partner organisations to help us plan our £1 million Flagship bid to the Big Lottery Silver Dreams programme. This funding is critical and (if successful) with additional investment by Macmillan Cancer Support will help us support over two thousand older people over the next three years. Together we’ve involved hundreds of older people up and down the country in this planning stage, we all hope the decision makers at Big Lottery are influenced by the “When bees meet trees’ report and willing to invest further in this type of social change.

Like Jarvis and Marvel I too believe social change happens when “bees meet trees”, this report needs to be widely disseminated to inform other potential ‘trees’.

Older people tell us our work is exciting, innovative and in many cases changes lives. Wish us luck with our bid, and if you are a social media ‘tweeter’ do please pass this one to your networks.

Visit the Clore Social Leadership Programme website to download a copy of the “When Bees Meet Trees” report