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Speaking notes from my address to All Party Parliamentary Group on Aging

Yesterday (7th December) I spoke at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Aging about active ageing for the LGA and bringing a Reading perspective.  As usual when I speak I adapted as I went but my speaking notes were 95% what I said and I thought worth sharing.  I reproduce them below.
One of the questions in discussion was what can parliamentarians do to help this agenda.  My view is that the one ask I would have would be to shift the emphasis of funding away from crisis and towards prevention and supporting people to keep their well-being.  I firmly believe that as well as being obviously a way to help people live better lives – which lest we forget is what local government, and government in general is actually for – it will also save money substantially in both the long run and in the short term.

Firstly as I’m speaking first I can make the obvious point.  I’m sure everyone in this room agrees that Older People are not a burden.  Some of the rhetoric out there about the aging society is really unhelpful on this and I think we all have a responsibility to talk differently about this and challenge that view. 

What we need to ensure is heard loud and clear is that older People are a valuable part of our communities and even in purely financial terms their contribution to our society is huge – and it could be even greater.

I’ve been asked to talk a bit about the role of local government, I’m going to talk both about the LGAs approach and use a couple of – linked – examples from my own local authority of Reading, we are a small urban area but I think the approach councillors there are taking would work anywhere.

Local government is ideally placed to work with older people: we are known and trusted and are the face of the public sector everyone comes into contact with – I’m sure as MPs you are well used to people thinking the police or NHS is run by the local council. 

It’s not just about perception though – if local government was given the freedom, flexibility and funding to support older people adequately the LGA has estimated that this would actually add £70 billion to the economy as well as hugely benefiting older residents.

But older people are essential in actually helping us as a society and therefore local government keep our areas special – they are unpaid carers for family, they volunteer formally and informally, look after their grandchildren – or even great grandchildren – so mum and dad can go to work, as well as often acting as the glue that holds communities together.

This is a good thing not just for those they help but also for older people – so many older people talk about the ‘cliff edge’ of retirement and the way that volunteering and helping their communities gives them a refreshed sense of purpose: and we’ve all got stories of the 90 year old who says he is ‘too young’ to use the specialist bus service or the volunteer who is older than the people she serves.

Local government’s emphasis on public health and prevention is therefore the right way not just for public finances but is a far better way of helping people live more fulfilling lives.  It’s very hard to do this at the moment but it’s vital.  The LGA is still calling for a shift in funding to support wellbeing to reduce the need for expensive, undesirable services that are needed in a crisis.

As an example of what we can do in local government by bringing things together in Reading following the closure of one of our day centres we created a new Neighbourhoods service along similar lines to our housing neighbourhoods service – but led by a really innovative member of staff from the old day centre. 

It’s small, it’s been a success so we’ve doubled its staffing to a grand total of two officers but it does far more than we expected because it has built up a good network of volunteers – who are largely retired people because of course older people aren’t just recipients of services.

What we’re finding is that the council is reaching far more people than it was before with the old day centre.  As a councillor I now have a better mix of services to recommend my constituents to:  we still have a specialist day centre for older people with care needs, but also now social clubs run by the council and volunteers in their local neighbourhood and I can also link someone up with some genuine sign posting – not just a leaflet with a list of activities (although we have that) but someone who’ll talk to you about what you want to do and find you something which includes linking people up with community groups and where it’s appropriate local churches and mosques.

As well as the activities in our neighbourhoods the town is also holding events around the year that bring people in from across town – we’ve had a tea dance in a town centre church, next week Christmas carols in the council chamber and we had a big celebration of older people’s day – all organised by a mix of older people volunteering and council staff. 

Sadly we can only justify this financially because it keeps people out statutory social care services, especially residential care but what really makes it worth doing is that about living well.  

What I’ve  outlined so far is focused on those people who are not yet in need of really specialist services but we shouldn’t assume that we move away from helping people maximize their social and physical health just because they’ve now got a specialist support need- your life is still valuable and should be fulfilling at all stages. 

I’m passionate about extra care housing and it’s something I hope the government will ensure gets funded in approach to housing – housing needs are acute not just for first time buyers but for last time buyers and movers – and of course helping people move to the right accommodation saves both the public purse and means a greater availability of family housing for younger people too.

However we can also redesign specialist services to be more appropriate to helping people live good lives.  In Reading we’ve just agreed to move the location of our specialist day centre to an unused wing of one of our leisure centres.  This will – even with refurbishment costs – save money very quickly on the operation but we’re also convinced it will create a more flexible service and enable older people with care needs to access some of the specialist gym equipment, use indoor bowls and hopefully the swimming pool.  It will also be attractive to family carers, who are often elderly themselves to give them a chance to improve their own physical fitness and improve social links.

From a political point of view – and we’re all politicians of one sort or another I thought it worth mentioning that as we probably all know closing facilities like day centres is often really contentious.  I moved over from the portfolio of housing to adult social care as we were merging, or closing a day centre, depending who you asked and it was a huge political storm locally. 

However what I’ve found with the latest change to our day centres has been completely different and largely very positive.  I think this was down to just one thing: a different way of consulting and designing the change.

We all know it’s important not to patronise people but it happens to often.   Treating older people as a partner in what we do absolutely essential.  A buzz word around a lot at the moment is ‘coproduction’ but really it’s about involving people and local government does this well.  We’ve had a huge amount of involvement of services users, families and older people more generally in Reading looking at the future of our day services this year and it’s really helped councillors to understand what people actually want and also for the public to understand what is possible and the very tight financial constraints we’re under.

However it’s not just useful for services that people are directly using.  Involving older people and using their expertise in all areas is a great opportunity.  In Reading one way we do this is though our older people’s working group, which has about 400 people involved with about 60 coming to each meeting, we use this for everything from looking at bus routes to the council’s budget consultation.

Which brings me back to where I started – if local government is freed up we can work with our local communities and especially older people in tackling the issues we face:  we need to be creative, more than ever but older people are not passive recipients of services but our partners in this.

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