Acting their age

Social workers, like other professionals – such as accountants,
estate agents and bankers – can claim a sense of injustice about
being regularly portrayed on TV in a negative way. But what about
people from all walks of life over 65? They too, according to Age
Concern, feel under-represented by TV, while viewers believe that
older people are usually depicted in soaps and sitcoms in a
“stereotypical fashion”.

However, the unhappiness at TV representation is only one aspect of
a growing awareness of age discrimination. The NHS Plan and the
National Service Framework for Older People recognise the problem
and declare boldly and categorically that ageism will not be
tolerated. And yet there are lower gross amounts for state-funded
residential care for older people than there are for other adult
Also, a survey in 2002 showed that 77 per cent of GPs confirmed
that age-based rationing occurred.

But it is often the indirect discrimination – through insensitivity
and lack of understanding – that can do most damage. “We wanted to
do some age awareness training for health and social care
professionals,” says Ruth Molloy, senior health promotion
specialist, Bolton primary care trust. “We looked at health and
social care policies in our area and didn’t find very much in terms
of direct age discrimination. But we felt that staff attitudes
tended to be where discrimination was more likely to be

However, Molloy says that tackling this subject needed careful
management. “The training was not about criticising those who work
in health or social care. It was about raising awareness and
perhaps reminding them that older people were all individuals and
should be treated as such.”

And the best way to do this was to dispense with the usual methods
of putting training together. “We decided that the most effective
way would be to have older people themselves design and deliver the
training. That way people might think a bit more about their
attitudes rather than have a younger person delivering a series of
facts and figures,” says Molloy.

Older volunteers – who needed to be over 50 – were recruited
through the Bolton Evening News and GMR radio. Interestingly, the
radio interview which featured a male interviewee resulted in
having good feedback from men, whereas women responded more to the
newspaper article.

Volunteers didn’t need experience but needed to be confident in
public speaking. “We managed to get people from a rich variety of
backgrounds. For example, some were involved in local amateur
dramatics – a great grounding for training and public speaking,”
smiles Molloy.

The successful volunteers – 14 in all – were asked to commit
verbally to one day a month for a year to the project, and would
have all expenses reimbursed by Age Concern, Bolton.

However, while the principle may be sound the practical reality
proved more wobbly. “We wanted it to be theirs and to belong to
them, and for them to feel confident in what they were delivering.
We, perhaps naively, thought it would be easy to come up with a
training programme. But we found they needed more guidance and
support than we thought. They were good at producing ideas but we
needed to be in the background pulling those ideas into a
structure,” says Molloy.

Importantly, five pilot training sessions were held for PCT staff.
“We had invited audiences because we wanted people who were
interested for the volunteers to practise on – rather than have to
face people who perhaps might have some animosity, simply didn’t
want to be there or might feel that their practice was in some way
being criticised by being told to go. We didn’t think it would be
fair to throw our volunteers into a situation that might be a bit
difficult,” says Molloy.

Following evaluations of those sessions the PCT added the course –
which is free – to its mainstream training. “We would have liked it
to have been compulsory but unfortunately that wasn’t possible,”
adds Molloy. “However, the hospital trusts and social services have
agreed for us to begin delivering the programme so we’re really
pleased about that.”

Curriculum Vitae
Ruth Molloy.
Job: Senior health promotion specialist (older
people), public health department, Bolton primary care trust.
Qualifications: Diploma in nursing studies; MA
Public Health.
Last job: health promotion project worker.
First job: Staff nurse in a women’s prison. 


  • Work in partnership – this wouldn’t have happened without Over
    50s federation, Age Concern, social services and CVS. 
  • Link a project to a strategic development or target. This helps
    organisations to take you seriously.
  • Encourage older people to do the training themselves – they
    have masses of experience and expertise. 


  • Recruit your volunteers and then just let them get on with
  • Force the training programme onto organisations – they don’t
    know what they want.
  • Don’t waste time piloting a training scheme – get out there and
    sink or swim.

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