A 65-YEAR-OLD woman who lived with chronic pain after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s has transformed her life – after medics prescribed fresh air.

Catherine MacGillivray relied on sticks to help her get around but now she’s back walking her dogs every day after taking part in a pioneering initiative.

The former shop worker from Oban – who says the impact on her life has been “amazing” – has benefited from a £3 million programme which prescribes non-clinical community support for conditions from anxiety to cancer.

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, the SPRING Social Prescribing programme brings together a network of 30 community-led health organisations to deliver non-medical support to patients over the next three years.

Under the initiative, GPs are encouraging people to take greater control of their health and wellbeing, and steering them away from medical intervention and towards social connection and activity.

READ MORE: The 10 most interesting gardens to visit in Scotland

Patients receive one-to-one support for a range of social, emotional and practical needs through meet-ups, yoga classes, counselling, swimming lessons and walks in nature.

Catherine had just retired when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after living with chronic pain and fatigue for years.

Overweight, depressed and reliant on sticks for walking, she was referred to community health partner Healthy Options which designed an activity programme with her. She started slowly in the gym before taking to the countryside for weekly forest walks with the group.

Three months on she has lost more than a stone in weight, no longer relies on sticks and has been able to return to walking her dogs every morning for half an hour – something she feared she would never be able to do again.

Catherine said: “Healthy Options has changed my life, definitely.

“I was very depressed after being diagnosed. We’d just retired and it was the worst news we could have had. When I first [attended Healthy Options] I used a walking stick but I no longer use it anymore. It has made me stronger, physically and mentally. The impact on my life has been amazing, just amazing.”

Rob Graham, senior exercise specialist at Healthy Options, said: “Social prescribing through Healthy Options is having a huge impact on the people of Oban and surrounding areas.

“Our main focus is ‘fitness for life’ by improving our clients' physical ability, mental wellbeing and, in many cases, their connection to the local community.”

READ MORE: Six Scottish summer walks

SPRING has 10 community-led health organisations across rural and urban areas in Scotland, in Glasgow, Lanark, Shotts, Greenock, Edinburgh, Cumnock, Dumfries and Oban.

The referral criteria includes social isolation, chronic illness, history of alcohol and drug misuse, mental health issues and those who have had poor results with more mainstream treatments.

The community-led health organisations have been handpicked because each one is highly experienced and all follow a social model of health, where the impact of social, cultural, environmental and economic factors on an individual’s mental and physical health are addressed.

Clare Cook, Social Prescribing regional manager, said: “Our social prescribers support people using a holistic model and understand that people need more than a pill to improve their health and wellbeing.

“They build up a relationship and trust which allows more honest and transparent conversations [that aim] to ultimately improve their situation.

“The patient and social prescriber co-create a health plan giving the patient control and options on their health journey. The one-to-one support will connect people to suitable activities and services in their local community.

“It is hoped that SPRING will reduce pressures on NHS services and encourage a culture shift from the medical model of health to a social model of health.”

Scotland's Insider Guide: Comrie

Since launching in January, 359 people in Scotland have used the service with targets in place to reach 4,000 more over the next three years, and 4,000 in Northern Ireland.

Dr Chris Mackintosh, medical director for South Lanarkshire, said: “We cannot continue to provide healthcare to a sick population. A move from just GP involvement [needs] a better structure of social prescribing. We absolutely want to see this … this means culture change.”