Understanding and getting to grips with the opportunities and challenges of an increasing ageing population is one of the key conundrums that the Government and wider society has to currently face.
The pre Christmas House of Lords debate on the place of older people in society highlighted the net financial contribution that older people make to the UK economy, citing the WRVS figure of £40billion benefit in 2010. But it’s not just about finances. Earlier this week in a response to a tabled question, Baroness Warsi said that the Government recognised the importance of the issues facing people in later life and the contribution they make to society, but did not have all the answers. She added that the Age Action Alliance was created in recognition of the need for a radical shift in approach and its vision was informed and driven by older people themselves.
The Lords Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change took oral evidence from Ministers Hunt, Lamb and Webb on Wednesday. In response to questions around what the Cabinet had done collectively to address issues arising from an ageing population, Hunt said that it had taken some good first steps but agreed that there was much more that it could do. He agreed that the ageing population was a nettle that had to be grasped. He saw the 2 biggest issues being the sustainability of the NHS and pension provision. The Committee Chair appeared sceptical; saying that the Committee had not seen much in the way of a coherent long term strategy to look at the scale of the challenges around ageing and that most work undertaken was fiscal and short term in nature.
Early in the week, the Coalition’s mid-term review re-confirmed the Government’s support for the principles set out in the Andrew Dilnot report. But any detail as to how the future costs of adult social care would be met was disappointingly absent. Just a couple of days later to emphasise the urgency, analysis by London Councils estimated that the funding gap for providing adult social care in London will amount to £907m within five years. Councils in London currently spend a third (£2.8 billion) of their total budgets on adult social care and this is set to rise dramatically as the number of Londoners aged over 65 increases by some 50,000 during the next five years.
So in a week when detail was thin on the ground about long term thinking on the future funding of care and for older people more generally, it is clear that there is a major role for the third sector to step up to the plate and take on an enhanced role. But this week there was criticism of the Government from the Chief Executive of AVECO that the potential for charities to transform public services remains largely untapped, with reforms in too many areas either glacially slow, as demonstrated by social care funding reform.
In his response, the Civic Society Minister said that harnessing the spirit of common purpose witnessed in 2012 so that together big social problems could be tackled was a cultural change that won’t happen overnight, especially in challenging economic times. He acknowledged that Britain is blessed to have some of the most generous people and the most innovative charities in the world.
He is right - the spirit is there, in spades. It is estimated that in the UK about 20 million people volunteer in some form. In WRVS alone over 50% of its 40,000 volunteers are over the age of 65. Not only are the volunteers helping older people in a more cost-effective way than through expensive state mechanisms like the NHS, but they are helping themselves to enjoy better mental and physical health outcomes. This is essential as the Government plans its strategies for the future. And WRVS, in celebrating in 2013 its 75th year of civic service, is keen for this message of volunteering to amplify and grow.