"Peer support is an untapped resource and can be essential when people are struggling to find and maintain the ‘self’ when the demands of a life changing situation or illness can make them feel that they have been swept away. Peer supporters can help to empower people to have a voice and use it."
- Diane Rutherford, Improvement and Learning Manager, brap
The Heart to Heart project aimed to enable older women from ethnic minority communities to access cardiac rehabilitation support and to make positive lifestyle changes after experiencing a cardiac episode.
This group was chosen as some ethnic minority groups – in which higher rates of heart disease are prevalent – face significant barriers in accessing advice and treatment. Women and older people also have real challenges in accessing services following heart disease and sometimes face inappropriate provision when they do.
The project was delivered by brap, an equalities and human rights charity, in partnership with local hospitals.
Heart to Heart trained almost 30 volunteer peer supporters in the skills they need to understand and empower women living with heart disease. Most of the peer supporters were themselves older women from ethnic minority communities and so are likely to have some shared experiences with the group they were supporting.
The women were supported by a peer for up to 12 weeks, throughout their clinical rehabilitation programme. The peer supporter helped them think about and implement lifestyle changes, in order to improve their health prognosis and better support the medical recommendations offered.
Often, it is the emotional challenges following a heart episode that participants find hardest to address. Peer supporters were trained in active listening and could offer hands on support by accompanying women to the gym or going for a walk, or by suggesting different ways of cooking favourite meals to make them healthier. The peer support could involve weekly one-hour meetings and occasional telephone calls.
The emphasis was on helping women who may otherwise be unable to access advice and treatment to understand heart disease, support recovery, increase confidence and take on more of the management of their own health – all agreed that support would be useful in making sustained lifestyle improvements. Ultimately, the Heart to Heart project aimed to help women living with heart disease to live longer and with a better quality of life.
Women receiving support described the positive impact the project had for them, explaining that “My outlook on life has changed” and “I need to look forward”.
The peer supporters also reported that the experience had been valuable for them with one volunteer describing that she “used to tell it like it is. Now I listen”.
Click here to see a short film and more information about the Heart to Heart project.