Friday, 20 August 2010

Older people in poverty This is a note I prepared recently on neighbourhood support for older people in poverty, for a friend working in a think-tank who asked for my views. I had forgotten it, rediscovered it, and thought I would share it. Apart from the obvious problems associated with declining health and mobility, many older people have difficulty adjusting to changes in their social and built environment. I see these issues in three groups. In addition to a general sense of discrimination against them, older people often feel economically discarded and left without a role, disempowered by the ethos of consumption, their values outdated and their memories not valued; They are often bewildered and challenged by the speed of change, for example in terms of the built environment in their neighbourhood, or in the cultural diversity around them; They will almost inevitably experience network erosion – the loss of personal contacts – as they age. For older people in poverty, it is far harder to get protection from these forces. Inevitably they will struggle to compensate for the loss of members of their social network if they lack the resources (not just money and mobility, but also cultural capital and confidence) to engage new non-local contacts. Furthermore, these are compound problems: being disempowered and experiencing exclusion makes it harder to deal with change in your environment; struggling to come to terms with change in your environment makes it harder to compensate for the loss of contacts; and so on. These accumulating effects cause profound social damage. Policy tends to get no nearer to this cycle than through piecemeal support for formal schemes of carers and buddies. Worse, we try to resolve the difficulties by displacement, drawing older people out of their homes and into sheltered care, rather than addressing the issues that would enable more of them to age in place. How can policy gain purchase on these issues? We need comprehensive cultural awareness in order to bring about change. We need policies that genuinely confront and reduce poverty. We need a media campaign that refreshes generalised respect for the fact of age. We need to promote localism – a policy emphasis on local solutions to social problems and the valuing of blended local cultures. We need to insist consistently on an intergenerational element in local initiatives. And we need policy to recognise and allow space for informal and semi-formal solutions, encouraging recognition of neighbours and stimulating interaction at neighbourhood level. In this respect it is interesting to note how local online networks seem to be releasing a latent demand for informal opportunities for neighbourhood support, among people who are disinclined to participate in formal organisations. The potential for social media to help support neighbouring, especially for older people in low-income areas, merits early investigation.

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