The 2015 Project: Could voluntary action transform social care?

Jane Vass is the Head of Public Policy at Age UK. This blog is part of The 2015 Project – NCVO’s member consultation on the big issues in the lead up to the 2015 election.

Moving beyond chronology as a way of understanding age will be a key shift as we move to an older society. And we need to innovate to enable us to adapt to an ageing population, including recreating our social institutions and creating ways for people to help one another to harness the opportunities of an ageing society and enable all of us to age better. 5 Hours a day, Nesta

Against a backdrop of austerity and an ageing society, voluntary action is often seen as one solution to the increasing demand on care services. But there is a real danger of devaluing volunteering and destroying good will if it is treated just as public services on the cheap. And avoiding this danger will mean looking afresh at the role of the voluntary sector and recognising what is already happening in this area.

Nearly 4.9 million people aged 65 and over in England (58 per cent of that age group) take part in volunteering or civic engagement, and most social care is already delivered through voluntary action. Around 6.4 million people provide unpaid care in the UK, among whom are nearly a million aged 65+. This care is not necessarily just an occasional helping hand – a fifth of all carers aged 75+ provide 50 or more hours of informal care each week. Most carers provide care willingly, but it is not without personal and social cost.

Research carried out by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers discovered that almost 70% of carers aged 60 and over said that looking after someone else had damaged their health. Only 93,000 carers aged 65+ receive any carer-specific services. And an estimated £5.3bn has been wiped from the economy in lost earnings due to people who’ve dropped out of the workforce to take on caring responsibilities for older or disabled loved ones, including £1 billion in forgone taxes.

So the first step in unleashing the power of voluntary action is to find ways of enabling carers to care without damaging their own health and finances – for example, by ensuring that truly flexible working is available, without stigma or financial penalty. The Care Bill currently before Parliament is a welcome step forwards, introducing stronger rights to support for carers.

But all parts of the system need to facilitate voluntary action, which should not mean providing public services on the cheap. The debate needs to move beyond individuals, to look at what support is needed to build community capacity – training, resources or just somewhere to meet – and how community assets can be linked to create something more than the sum of the parts.

For example, Age UKs around the country offer services ranging from lunch clubs, to computer courses, to support groups for people with particular conditions such as dementia. But it is when these services begin to be linked together that they really come into their own. For example, a client with multiple health problems phoned Age UK following the death of his wife. She had provided care for him and there was now nobody else to help. The Age UK adviser helped him sort out his finances, find a carer – and when he mentioned he felt lonely – put him in touch with a local befriending scheme.

This approach needs to replicated in terms of linking together social services, local clinical commissioning groups, health providers, housing bodies and health and wellbeing boards. Local people and local service-providers – voluntary or statutory – know what is needed but local government and local bodies need to work much harder at building capacity within communities.  One interesting example is the Southwark Circle of Care, which was developed out of research supported by the Department for Work and Pensions and London Borough of Southwark into what older people thought would most improve their quality of life. It was shaped by Southwark Council’s desire to keep older people living in their own homes for longer.

The scheme launched in May 2009 and operates as a paying membership organisation for older people, combining public, private and voluntary contributions to allow its members both to build their own social networks and to help with practical tasks like cleaning, DIY, gardening, shopping and computer support.  Around 850 members pay £20 a year for a monthly newsletter of information about social events, and a free advice phone line. Neighbourhood Helpers help out with practical tasks and share their knowledge.

So, can voluntary action transform social care?

Yes, if it moves from a narrow focus on ‘volunteering’ to looking at how community assets in their widest sense can be valued, developed and linked up.

No, if it is seen simply as a free substitute for existing public services.

Tell NCVO your ideas for the future on demographic changes, and how charities can adress the associated challenges – we’d love to hear from you.

For more information on NCVO’s election work see The 2015 Project: And so the election campaign begins…

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