Responding to the challenge - ageing and the voluntary sector

Posted by Cherry Bushell on

One in four people will be aged over 65 by 2030. The demands on society associated with a rapidly ageing population will become more complex, especially as the resources needed to support such growth become more scarce. A recent report from the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing said that the voluntary sector 'can choose to be in the vanguard of shaping our ageing society and embracing its opportunities' (*1).In effect, the report sets a challenge to the voluntary sector - now is the time to act. Now is the time to be more innovative, creative and flexible about how we meet need in the communities we serve.

And yet, this seems to miss the point. Innovation and creativity are luxuries that come with ample funding and time to test. The voluntary sector sits at the vanguard of an ageing population because we are often the people who are there meeting needs that aren't being met elsewhere. Voluntary sector organisations rely on an unpaid workforce who are often asked to fill in the gaps left by declining public sector provision. Our daily work doesn't appear to let up. Need appears to continue persist.

Ageing provides a fascinating lens to view the activity of the voluntary sector. As a collective, we are easy to talk to; caring, compassionate and connected and we are always looking for ways to ease the needs of those we help. But we are not in a position to solve them, the needs may be managed to an extent, but they are not eliminated. There are many reasons for this. Funding seems to be the lead issue for malcontent. And yet, I would suggest that being disempowered is a far worse fate that we face. Voluntary sector organisations demonstrate effective leadership but this is limited to within the charity and the sector - our scope is limited by the fact we aren't in a position to shape society as many of the needs we meet are the outcome of government decisions and a system that has inherent inequality at its foundation. We fill the gaps created by forces far bigger than ourselves.

Isolation and loneliness in old age is now spoken about widely – we know that ageing leads to a shrinking world and fewer social connections. New acquaintances for older people tend to be service providers, there to bathe, dress and feed. Not to talk about politics, the future and seek out wisdom. This is not inclusive care of a vital part of our society. This is activity being done to the older people. As though they exist 'over there', separate in some way. The ageing lens shows the cracks in our society on a scale that we cannot ignore. And yet, we as voluntary sector organisations are only able to provide the paper that make the cracks disappear for a short time. That is, until the crack widens or another one appears.

In a sense, Jeremy Hunt, Minister of State for Health was onto something this month when he said we were all responsible for elderly relatives and neighbours (*2); we all carry responsibilities of care to those around us. But his language was misleading. Local authorities and the NHS do not alone shoulder the burden. The voluntary sector has for decades offered its shoulders to help and care for those in need.  The issues of isolation and loneliness won't be fixed  by a more responsible public who pop in to have a cup of tea and a chat with an elderly neighbours. Replace  the term 'isolation' with 'exclusion' and the question of a cup of tea becomes a question of inequality.

Kindness, neighbourliness, care, friendship – these are the tools that are needed to build flourishing united communities. Isolation and loneliness are indicative of exclusion. The cracks the voluntary sector paper over are those that would normally be filled by social connections, the natural outcome of an inclusive society. With ageing as the lens, we can see that these tools must be nurtured and encouraged to become the fabric of our society.

The voluntary sector is not alone as it edges towards the vanguard, all of society stands in the vanguard. Systemic change is needed. Care must become embedded in our children's education, the way we use our streets should be made inclusive, our attitudes to the value a single person presents to society must go beyond economic contribution.

Responding to the challenge

Laura Alexander

Programme Manager, NBFA Assisting the Elderly

July 2015


1) 'Decision Time: WIll the voluntary sector embrace the age of opportunity?' Final report of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, March 2015, page 1