I’m currently taking another look at the literature around neighbourhood support for older people and I note that the relative lack of interest in interdependence seems to prevail.
I’m not talking about the narrative in the popular press and broadcast media which problematizes the ageing population and implicitly presents older people as over-dependent on others and a burden on society. (This narrative is punctuated with patronising gasps of widespread astonishment at the occasional discovery of an older person who is active and involved). Nor do I deny that many older people are dependent and need committed care: looking after them is a social responsibility which should never be seen as unwelcome.
Researchers and commentators on ageing do not endorse the condemnatory ‘burden’ stereotype; but neither do many of them seem to grasp the fact that older people contribute to local neighbourhood life in many ways, subtle or emphatic. Nor do many seem to grasp the potential for even more older people to contribute, if the culture was supportive.
I don’t think it helps that policy is blind to the concept of informal support. As far as government is concerned, if you’re not volunteering formally – preferably under the aegis of a registered charity – you may as well not be doing anything for your fellow-citizens.
So it was with some delight that I came across this paper in the Journal of ageing studies, based on focus groups and interviews in Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights the contributions made by older people to the places where they live (which the researchers call ‘care for place’). The analysis results in a framework of four categories of activity: volunteering, activism, advocacy, and nurturing – ‘helping and representing others, giving advice and support, or facilitating action, whether individually or as part of a group.’
This has always been the case I believe – from litter-picking to emotional support to informal childcare or taking in post or maintaining vigilance over local amenities, articulating public concern and spearheading campaigns and so on – but it needs to be described and acknowledged before the gravity of ‘the burden discourse’ drags us all down. So this is a very welcome piece of research.
And perhaps this is one of those rare occasions where some kind of locally-applicable ‘toolkit’ could be developed (sorry, I try not to use the word), to help community agencies demonstrate the extent of the ongoing contribution of those who society would readily discard. Quantifying the number of volunteer-hours would allow an estimate of financial value, in line with the WRVS study which showed that people over 65 made a net contribution to the UK economy of £40 billion in 2010. WRVS noted:
‘Our research shows that every year, each older volunteer spends an average of over 100 hours 'informally' volunteering and more than 55 hours in formal volunteering roles. This is worth £10 billion to the UK economy.’