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Five key challenges we face in responding to the coronavirus crisis

Ageing Better has been working with national organisations, local authorities and age-friendly communities to better understand the implications the coronavirus crisis has brought about.

Our Rural Partnerships Development Manager, Paul Rhodes, discusses the five challenges facing local communities and those in later life as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At Ageing Better, we’ve been convening national organisations, local authorities and age-friendly communities to understand the challenges as we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic and how we can all work together to tackle them. 

Here are five challenges we’ve identified in our work so far. 

1. Ageism

The voices of older people have not been heard in this pandemic. They have been talked about rather than heard from, often portrayed as weak, vulnerable and needing to be shielded from the rest of society. This does a gross disservice to the many older people who are continuing to volunteer, are organising food and prescription deliveries in their villages and those who continue to put themselves at risk as key workers.

There has never been a more important time to combat ageist narratives. As they plan for recovery, the public, private and third sector organisations should promote active ageing and ensure their messaging uses positive and realistic images of later life.

2. Inequalities

Local responses to the pandemic have shone a light on inequalities that already existed, including digital, and access to information and support has been unequal. While local authorities were quick to put information online, the level of quality and detail varied from place to place, and it excluded those without internet access. Hardcopy information was slow to materialise. 

Digital engagement has increased during lockdown and we should look at how we can maintain it, but 2.5 million over 75s have never been online.There are a significant minority of people who can’t afford to use the internet, do not possess the skills to use it or else live in rural areas with poor or no coverage. We need to tackle the barriers to getting people online and understand what would motivate them to do so to ensure they are not excluded in the future. 

3. Fragility of the voluntary sector

The voluntary sector has been hit hard. Charities are losing income from their retail, fundraising and commercial operations at the same time they are seeing higher demand, and whilst they are not yet reporting cashflow problems, ‘getting by’ could turn to struggling by the autumn. Older people, who make up a huge proportion of volunteer numbers, have faced tougher isolation and social distancing restrictions. 

Despite the challenges, the pandemic has demonstrated just how vital voluntary services are to the public sector, and local authorities are acknowledging this. As we move toward recovery there needs to be more collaboration between the sectors so that people in later life benefit from a joined-up approach. 

4. Maintaining the growth in community participation

The huge growth in people volunteering is a once in a generation event. When life begins to return to normal we need to find ways to sustain people’s motivation. Many who volunteered for national programmes have not been able to find the right opportunity to actually contribute.  

To harness this surge in numbers we must make it easier for people to volunteer in more than one place or with more than one organisation. We need to find ways of removing barriers whilst maintaining safety as we maintain social distancing. And importantly, we should focus on re-engaging volunteers who have had to stop due to self-isolation, learning from and applying the principles of age-friendly and inclusive volunteering to help people rediscover their confidence. 

5. Short-termism

The immediate response saw a focus on the here and now, with little thought for the long-term recovery and how an age-friendly approach can support it. As councils have sought to identify and support the most clinically vulnerable people, others fell through the cracks. And hyper local responses have sometimes clashed with the top down approach from central government. 

The recovery needs to be locally led to take account the unique challenges each place will face, and mapping needs through data sharing will ensure at-risk groups do not miss out. Members of the UK Network of Age-friendly Communities are leading the way in showing how the age-friendly model can be used to shape recovery plans. 

The recovery phase offers us the opportunity to reset our thinking and ways of working. Let’s all work together to make it an age-friendly recovery, one in which we can all benefit from the opportunities for a fairer, more equitable society. 

Ageing Better's response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Paul Rhodes
Rural Partnerships Development Manager