When age is no barrier

Following a government inspection that recommended better consultation with older people, Sutton Council in south London joined forces with the charity Age Concern, a local primary care trust and others to see what could be done. And the fruit of nearly four years’ work can justifiably be touted as a model of good practice.

Armed with a three-year health improvement (Himp) grant the charity set up its user and carer involvement project. “It consists of two key elements: recruiting older people as a discussion or reference group; and recruiting older people who are trained to interview other older people,” says Marion Harper, director of Age Concern, Sutton.

The project now has nearly 40 volunteers. “The oldest is 93 but most are in their 70s and 80s. They now really know how to represent older people’s views, to challenge when appropriate and offer person-centred ideas which challenge conservative service delivery,” smiles Harper.

The volunteers can get involved in four activities: representation, training, service evaluation, and consultation. “We have representatives on 14 local forums and groups,” says development manager Jill Gascoine-Becker. “We offer training courses on attitudes and age discrimination, and we help the council design its training courses; we carry out interviews with service users to evaluate on national issues such as falls and strokes, and on particular services such as home care and assistive technology; finally we are consulted on policy and whether public documents are easy to understand.”

The project marked its arrival by monitoring the catering and cleanliness at a local hospital: St Helier. “Two volunteers continue to carry out unannounced visits to the hospital,” says Harper. “We originally highlighted the poor quality – which was picked up by the local press – but things have significantly improved over the years.”

She continues: “Since the early days, the project has evolved beyond our wildest dreams, expanding and experimenting in different areas of user involvement.”

And it seems there are two good reasons for this. First, it’s hosted by a charity rather than council or PCT officers. “The name Age Concern is the golden key,” says Gascoine-Becker. “It’s what gets us into see a lot of people. They trust Age Concern.”

But second, and crucially, it’s because older people themselves are doing the work. “The older people we interview like it,” says Gascoine-Becker. “They appreciate being interviewed by someone the same age, who have had the same experiences, the same difficulties paying council tax and who understand, for example, how hard it is getting on a train because the step is too steep.”

Harper agrees: “Regardless of whether our findings are positive or negative, the quality and quantity of the responses have been vastly enhanced. Service users trust older people and it’s easy to talk to them.”

Inevitably, there are pitfalls to avoid. “Older people don’t like things sprung on them,” says Gascoine-Becker. “If I talk about something that will happen in two to three weeks’ time they’re comfortable with that. If I talk about something taking place at the end of the week they just don’t want to know.”

However, it doesn’t pay to be tokenistic. “The volunteers themselves are very hot on the feedback,” says Gascoine-Becker. “It’s crucial they know why they are being asked to take part, what’s expected and what impact they have had.”

The project’s initial funding ran out last March but, pleasingly, this didn’t signal its demise. “Our users have a business plan,” says Harper. “Our priority is to generate income to sustain the project. The council and the PCT have made a commitment to continue funding, at least for this year. We are also looking at ways we can promote our model, deliver training and continue to scrutinise national service framework outcomes, particularly age discrimination.”

And if the user and carer involvement project continues to prosper, you can certainly put it down to experience.

To find out more, contact Marion Harper on 020 8770 4092.

Lessons learned

  • Invest time, training and support and watch your volunteers develop specialisms and interviewing skills.
  • As well as experience of illness or disability, look for volunteering or professional (retired nurse, for instance) or carer experience.
  • Encourage men to take part. “Although we have a good ethnic minority representation we only have three men and it’s hard to attract them,” says Gascoine-Becker
  • Publicise: “We regularly placed large ads in the Sutton Guardian inviting older people to a meeting (‘Are you interested in services for older people? Would you like to make a difference?’), and with the added enticement of lunch, over 100 attended,” says Harper.


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