It’s a year since I joined Independent Age and as anniversaries so often have the habit of doing, it’s made me reflect on the past year and to look forward to the year ahead, so I thought I’d share.
I joined Independent Age because I’m passionate about life - about people - and strongly believe that we all have the right to live and enjoy our full lives. From my years working in cancer, I know that growing older is a privilege, denied to many, and should be celebrated. Yet today the language and narrative about growing older and older people is often negative. For me, there’s nothing OK about that, so I joined the charity because I wanted to help change it.
The reality of growing older in the UK
In reality, the fact that so many more of us are living longer is one of the great successes of modern medicine. Today’s average life expectancy for men and women combined is 81 compared to c.42 in the 1860s when Independent Age was founded. Back then, only 10% of people lived into their 80s whereas by 2030 its anticipated there will be 21,000 centenarians living in the UK. How amazing is that!
Currently, there are 12 million people over 65 living in the UK, and this number is set to grow over the next 50 years. However, many people find that those extra years are not all they’d hoped for, with an average 13 years of their later life spent in poor health. 1.9m people over 65 are living below the poverty line, and 1.2m people are chronically lonely. COVID-19 has also had a particularly cruel impact on the lives of older people.
The impact of COVID-19
In the UK, almost 42,000 people, have so far died due to COVID-19, the majority in later life. The chronic underfunding of the care sector and lack of Government focus left many people receiving care in their own home or living in a care home particularly vulnerable to the disease yet again reinforcing the need for reform and investment.
A disturbing theme of ageism and discrimination has emerged during the pandemic. Too often, older people have been reduced to their chronological age, or to a series of risk factors and even put under pressure to sign a do not resuscitate order or refused access to treatment. Their rights and life stories ignored. It has been a stark reminder that there is still much to do to ensure everyone can live a happy and healthy later life.
This has been the backdrop to our work this last year, to develop a new strategy for 2021-2023 so that we have a clear route-map for the future. Our strategy was agreed by our Board in July, and we are excited to be in the transition phase to begin its implementation, but inevitably it’s not always been a straightforward or pain-free process.
Why we must change
Since I joined the charity, it’s been clear to me, that there was a need for significant change to solidify the charity’s foundations; delayer and streamline staffing structures; address staff frustrations; invest in our frontline services and tighten our financial management. So alongside strategic planning, building new relationships and trying to learn a lot of stuff fast, that’s really what my first year has been about – significant change within the charity. It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s what needed to happen.
With much regret and soul searching, my Board, new senior leadership team and I have not been able to find a way to achieve this without changing the shape of some of our teams. This has been important to both reduce costs to ensure sustainability for the longer term, give us space to weather the financial impact of COVID-19 but also importantly to ensure we have the right roles to deliver our new strategy. This has involved us removing 40 roles and creating 40 new ones, including several positions in our direct services as we start to reshape our connection services. Whilst happily lots of existing colleagues will be transferring into new jobs we are also going to be embarking on a major recruitment drive so I thought it might also be useful to share the toplines of our new strategy, so anyone interested in joining us knows what they are coming into!
A new focus and a clear direction
Our new vision, mission and values and our focus for the future are as follows:
Enhancing our support to individuals and driving positive change
To deliver this, we will continue to provide our information and advice services, but with a greater focus on extending our methods of delivering information and focusing our advice on areas, we believe, we can add the greatest value – complex social care and poverty issues.
We will also continue to deliver connection services both face to face (when we can) and by phone and online. We still plan to offer an extended range of services including a more intensive casework service to support people to reconnect to the people, interests and places that matter to them. We have no illusions that we can meet everyone’s needs alone. In the future we will have a strong focus on sharing our learning and on partnership working with other charities and across different sectors so that together we can offer the services and support people want from us.
Over the next three years we will also work to increase the impact of our policy and influencing work through a focus on issues where we can make most difference and that through a process of engagement and co-production, we know are important to older people. We will work in partnership with older people themselves and with academics, policymakers and other organisations across sectors to drive positive change.
Partnership working and capacity building
We are also committed to being a positive contributor to the wider older people’s sector as I firmly believe there needs to be an ecosystem of voluntary organisations from national ones like Independent Age, to hyper-local community groups to provide the services and support older people want and need when, where and how they want to access them.
That’s why one of our new organisational goals is also about supporting capacity building within the sector. We started this process through our COVID-19 Grants Fund where we are distributing over £2m of our reserves to other smaller charities who are working with older people at particular risk during the pandemic, so they can adapt and continue to deliver their essential services. We hope that grant-giving will remain part of our services and so the evaluation we gain from this programme will help us focus on the future. We also want to explore how else we can help and add value – for example, by simplifying the process of referring into our services, convening those interested together to share best practice.
As a committed long term charity worker – this part of our new strategy particularly excites me because for me this is what the voluntary sector is all about – being more than ourselves, our brand, our organisation. For me, organisations should be a means to an end – after all, it’s the mission that matters.
Of course, all of this relies on getting the foundations right and building a thriving happy strategically focused organisation, and we are on that path. I guess for those who consider working for Independent Age in the future; I’d say it will suit people who genuinely want to help ensure everyone can grow older with dignity, choice and purpose and who want to be part of creating the strategic, impactful charity that can deliver it.
My first year at Independent Age has been unexpected and challenging but also exciting and full of moments of great pride and joy, so I can’t wait to see the progress we make towards making sure we can all live a happy, connected later life in year two.