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Major new report reveals flawed approach in traditional services for older people

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A pioneering three-year research project, Shaping our Age, whose final report is published on Wednesday, has found that older people themselves have a great deal to contribute to the debate around well-being and services for older people, and yet 71% say that they are rarely or never consulted on services that impact their life.

Shaping our Age, supported by the Big Lottery Fund, is a joint project between the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University, the Centre for Social Action at De Montfort University and older people’s charity the Royal Voluntary Service (formerly WRVS). The research challenges the common perceptions of ageing and seeks to question the portrayal of older people and the assumptions that those providing services for them often make.

The national press and broadcasting media carried reports on the study and the research leaders have been invited to present their findings to Cabinet Office and to Welsh and Scottish ministers.

To coincide with the launch, Shaping our Age commissioned new quantitative research amongst over 65s which is also being published. This highlights older people's own concerns about their position in society: 61% of over 65s think that society sees them as a burden and the majority (57%) think that the media encourages the idea that older people are a problem for society. Two-thirds of older people (66%) feel that they are stereotyped and, worryingly, well over half (56%) think that older people are ignored.

Despite the views of others, the vast majority (62%) of over 65s do not feel as old as they are and two-thirds (61%) don't see age as important.

Shaping our Age illustrates the huge contribution that older people have to make to the debate around their own well-being and how best to provide services and support for older people, and yet only a third (33%) feel that the contribution that older people make to society is recognised.

The report shows that traditional services for older people, whilst addressing important practical needs, can also encourage passivity and dependence. Many of these services do things "for" older people rather than working alongside them, involving older people and responding to what they themselves would like. Older people reported being patronised or not sufficiently involved or valued.

These findings are echoed by the survey results: although a majority of over 65s (57%) do not use services specifically for older people, for those that do, one in ten feel that the services provided are not really what they want nor are they interesting or stimulating enough. 16% say that the services are the stereotypical ones that people think older people would like.

David McCullough, Royal Voluntary Service Chief Executive, said: "The fact that, as a society, we are living longer is a wonderful thing but the challenges that this brings with it has led to older people being seen as a burden. This report lays out what many of us already know: that older people have a huge amount to give back to society and that we should harness that expertise and enthusiasm to make services better for older people by involving them more in decision making. Shaping our Age is an exciting and innovative research project which should act as a wake-up call for those of us providing services for older people.”

Care and Support Minister, Norman Lamb said: “Our whole approach to health and care should be based on trying to help people have a good life. It’s self-evident that this has to be based on ensuring that older people have a voice. 

“We must challenge negative language about ‘burdens’. We know older people have a great deal of experience and knowledge and make an extraordinary contribution to our health and care system. I welcome the ‘Shaping Our Age’ report as an important step towards a positive later life for older people in England.”

Professor Peter Beresford OBE, Director of the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University, said: "The biggest issue older people see as needed for improving their well-being is more social contact and they want to play a bigger part in changing things for the better. Services for older people have to shift from a paternalistic ‘doing-to’ model to the ‘involvement-led’ approach older people value. What’s needed now are the twenty-first century equivalent of the old ‘Darby and Joan’ clubs, not just more of the same”.

Jennie Fleming, Reader in Participatory Research and Social Action at the Centre for Social Action, De Montfort University, said: “Shaping our Age clearly demonstrates the need to involve older people more in both the debate around their own well-being, but also the actual services that they use. Participation in activities makes a massive difference to an older person’s sense of well-being and that in turn can have a positive effect on loneliness, which we know has a knock on impact on mental and physical health.”

Shaping our Age defines what constitutes well-being for older people by consulting with the project's participants. Key factors which determine well-being were found to be: good mental and physical health; achieving and accomplishing in life; and leading an independent life. Keeping fit and active and being involved with other people were also seen as important. Relationships and social contacts with friends and family are essential and participating in groups and clubs, as well as volunteering, were cited as important.

Through a national consultation with older people, as well as five local projects carried out as part of Shaping our Age, the report suggests a future model for services for older people which would involve older people themselves in helping develop the kind of services and activities that will contribute most to their well-being. Key factors include starting with the older people and using their expertise and knowledge, having small groups for activities and actually doing what older people want to do rather than dictating what they should do.

The Royal Voluntary Service supports over 100,000 older people each month to stay independent in their own homes for longer with tailor made solutions. Through its army of 40,000 volunteers, the charity runs services such as Good Neighbours, Meals-on-Wheels and Books-on-Wheels that alleviate loneliness and help older people. The Royal Voluntary Service also provides practical support for older people who have been in hospital through its On Ward Befriending and Home from Hospital services.