Joining Independent Age as Chair was a decision shaped by my experiences. Not just my varied career as a social worker, as a Director in 3 councils, as an inspector and as a policy maker in central government, but from my personal life as well.
When my 80 year-old mum told me she had decided to move out of her three bedroom house in Nottingham where she’d lived for 40 years, to move closer to me in the manic metropolis that is London I thought she was making a mistake, but she was adamant. I thought she’d be lonely and miss her friends. How could she cope at her age with such a big life change? Surely she’d be overly dependent on me? I thought she’d miss her bridge and other clubs. What I underestimated was her determination - her ability to make new friends, her resourcefulness to seek out new activities, meet people at the church, and use the bus to go to new places and meet up with new friends. It proved to be one of the best decisions she ever made.
She took control of her own life. She decided how she wanted to live what she anticipated would be her last decade. Her self-confidence and excitement about a new life in London demonstrated my own misconceptions I had for older age. I was reminded that not all older people fit the tired stereotype of increasing dependence and reduced participation in life. When she asked me to find her a flat near me, her main criterion was that she wanted her own front door; it was a mantra that I held from then onwards. What do I value? My own front door. What does my daughter want? Her own front door. So why should my 80 year old mother not have the same? And she enjoyed her own front door for a further 7 years and had a renewed zest for life and happiness in her last years, living independently and following her own path.
To me, this embodies the challenge laid down by Paul Burstow from SCIE when he opened our Doing Care Differently series. His view that we need not only to rid society of the stigma of old age but also the self-stigma that dominates our later years as ones in which we are helpless and dependent on others.
Changing our misconceptions
At Independent Age it is our mission to make the UK the best country in which to grow old. This starts with each of us individually challenging our preconceptions of older people and if we are not old yet, think ahead (and plan ahead) to our own old age. Like any lazy stereotyping when we break down why we associate certain characteristics with a group of people, our thinking rarely takes into consideration the variety of people we know within that group. Our thinking is often outdated and completely at odds with our own life, so why do we just accept it?
In the last few years I have seen older people blamed for election results and Brexit, the housing crisis, and even the lack of available GP appointments. All of these are society wide decisions/issues but often laid squarely at the door of older people. Is this really the foundation we want to build a new system of care on?
Changing our misconceptions of older age is certainly one side of the coin. The other is changing the system to make it work, but not just for current older people, for all of us. After all, we’ll all be old one day. We all have a vested interest in designing our own futures. Not all older people need care services and not all people who need care services are older, but there are nearly half a million care home residents in the UK while 1.2 million older people currently have an unmet care need, so when we consider how to make older age a more fulfilling experience, social care is a good place to start.
Challenges and opportunities
Throughout Doing Care Differently we have seen unpicked both the challenges and the opportunities that exist in the care system today. Our contributors tackle the questions of funding: Eileen Burns from the British Geriatric Society argues for a transparent and fair funding structure so that older people “can understand, plan for and not fear the costs” of social care. Steve Webb from Royal London declares social care is the “last big uninsured risk” and wonders whether the state’s role is simply as a “provider of the last resort”. Kirsty Woodard from Ageing Without Children urges us to be realistic about demand in the future as the proportion of people in the UK not having children grows.
A great number of our bloggers, including Anna Dixon, Centre for Ageing Better and George Holley-Moore, ILC-UK discuss their interpretations of “quality” and how far we sometimes are from delivering a quality service to older people. Ian Green of The Terrence Higgins Trust adds to this by highlighting the unchartered territory we are now entering as the first generation of people living with HIV enters older age. And TSA and PA Consulting show us the role that technology can play in helping people maintain independence by staying safe and well in their own homes.
The questions and challenges facing us are well documented; you only need to pick up a newspaper for the latest scandal involving the care crisis, yet as Claudia Wood, Demos points out - if we really want to see improvements in social care we need “to start celebrating good practice with the same dedication as we weed out instances of neglect and abuse”.
Throughout the blogs I have seen a recurring theme where a multi-agency approach is proposed to deliver better care. When has it ever not been such? Yet it still is the single thing that doesn’t happen from the perspective of people who are trying to navigate the complexities of our outdated care system. It is not about family and friends providing all the support, nor is it about the local authority or the NHS or the Government doing it all. There is not one solution that will save the social care system in one go (as much as we might wish there was). As Margaret Blake of Ipsos Mori reminds us, one approach may work for one older person but have the opposite effect for another. We are not all the same and do not respond to the same measures, therefore surely it stands to reason that one single approach to care will not work for everyone.
Care is already being done differently
We began our Doing Care Differently series in the absence of Government action on the promised social care green paper. We wanted to keep the debate, that had finally begun to get the attention it deserved, alive and make sure the topic was fully explored, not just boiled down to who pays and how much does it cost? In the course of nearly 30 blogs on the topic what has become apparent is that care is already being done differently – small scale and pioneering approaches to care are out there already, they’re just far too few and far between and in no way meet the level of demand. We don’t have time to wait for politicians to carve out time away from the dominant Brexit agenda to focus on sorting out the social care system. We need to get on with it now.
Time to get on with it
However big or small, we all have a role to play. Those within the system need to look to the examples of best practice and ask themselves – is there any reason we can’t do this in our local area? Those already doing best practice need to shout even louder.
Where is the creativity as well as prudence? I am inspired by the new generation of leaders who, in spite of the day to day grind of doing more with less, are thinking differently and creatively, reaching out into their communities for ideas, appreciating that alone they do not have the solutions.
Of course while it remains of paramount importance for parliamentarians and policy makers to make the key changes and decisions that will change the care system, all of us can take steps to ensure the UK is a place where it feels good to grow old in. Write to your MP about social care in your local area, sign our petition to keep social care on the parliamentary agenda, help older people maintain their independence throughout connectedness by volunteering. Most importantly, think about how your own old age might look, challenge your thinking and rid yourself of outdated stereotypes about dependency and being “a burden”. Find your own (metaphorical) front door.
Our series of Doing Care Differently is just the beginning. Our contributing thought leaders have given us food for thought with their bold ideas and original suggestions.
What comes next is ACTION. We can all do something. Ask yourself “What can I do?”. It is not just for parliamentarians and policy makers to affect the change needed to ensure older people feel valued and contribute fully in our communities, that they have the care and dignity they deserve, or to design our future for us. It is for each of us to do what we can. It’s time we all stood up and were accounted for.
A call to action
What will you commit to doing? Tell us, however small, however personal. If we all do something and not wait for others we can make a difference.