‘Older people are as important as anyone’

Baroness Andrews is a champion of the contribution older people make to society. In her community of Lewes, East Sussex, she says many local organisations, such as political and cultural groups, would struggle to survive without the input of the older generation.

But a report last year from the government’s Social Exclusion Unit showed that many older people still live on the margins of society. The Excluded Older People study found that almost one in three over-65s did not see any friends at least once a week, while one in six were affected by depression.

The government this week launches its follow-up to the study, which will outline plans to tackle the issue. Central to the report, entitled A Sure Start to Later Life: Ending Inequalities for Older People, will be a drive to join up services for older people in the way Sure Start has done for young children and their families. The government will initially distribute a £10m pot among eight local authorities to pilot approaches to joined-up services.

“This will enable us to set up places where people not only go for information but services for everyone,” says Andrews, who is under-secretary of state at the  Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Such services already exist in some areas. Andrews highlights Sonali Gardens, the scheme for Bangladeshi older people in Tower Hamlets, east London, that won Community Care’s 2005 older people award. It offers person-centred day care and extra care, and encourages contact with relatives, local clubs and the mosque.

“It says to elderly people ‘you are not a bundle of needs, you are making a real contribution to the community’,” says Andrews. “As one gets older, one’s friends die, and the support that can be offered through day care can be crucial. I know with my own mother what a difficulty it was to get her to go to day care. Elderly people like what’s familiar. They will go when they know that it’s friendly.”

The report will also set out plans to improve safety for older people in their homes – all over-60s will be entitled to a free smoke alarm while the most vulnerable will be eligible for sprinklers – and proposals on transport, with councils given more freedom to offer alternatives to bus passes.

Another key measure will be to give local authorities a responsibility to reduce social exclusion among older people. The ODPM and Department of Health are in talks with the Local Government Association about how this can be managed.

Andrews acknowledges that pressure on adult social services budgets could act as a barrier, but says this could also push councils to become more innovative in developing front-line services.

She says the report cannot be seen in isolation from other policy developments, particularly the forthcoming white paper on social care and health. It is “part of the same phenomenon” as the white paper and a “really excellent example of cross-government working”. Ministers from several departments are expected to launch the report this week.

Through her ODPM remit on regeneration, Andrews says she has seen the benefits communities gain from engaging with the older generation. “If you look at a lot of regeneration, I have often seen 70 or 80-year-old ladies who are hugely involved in the design of parks. They love it and thrive on it,” she says.

“What sustains the community is inter-generational contribution and older people are as important as anyone.”

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