Sally Hall: We need to focus now on the needs of the ageing population

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Yoga on Tuesday, choir on Friday, Wii Fit on Wednesday and a Yorkshire beer-tasting session in between.

Sounds like a good weekly routine to me.

It also represents a new and forward-thinking approach to supporting older people. After one quick look at the website for Garforth’s Neighbourhood Elders Team (NET) – with more than 50 activities on offer - I already feel exhausted.

The work of NET has been championed by local and national media (I heard about those Wii sessions on Radio 4’s Today programme last week) as well as being cited as an example of good practice by Mick Ward, head of adult socialcare commissioning in Leeds.

At its heart, this approach is about challenging loneliness and fostering a sense of community.

NET now has 2000 clients and 157 volunteers; ‘community connectors’ who spot potentially lonely older people and develop ways of connecting them with people who have time and skills to offer.

Along with other schemes in the city, NET is offering an approach which looks at the person first – their interests, their life story, their preferences.

This is in stark contrast to the sort of care many older people receive – a rapid in-and-out home visit from harried carers on zero-hours contracts, focused entirely on basic physical needs.

I once attended a healthcare conference where the speaker was heckled by an opinionated audience member on the subject of knickers.

As an occupational therapist, I support people to do the things in life they need and want to do.

This can include putting on underwear.

After all, there is a dignity issue involved. Where rehabilitative approaches have the potential to be effective, learning how to dress again can be a crucial goal.

But in many ways, I’m with the knicker-heckler.

Interrupting a seminar on stroke rehabilitation which focused very much on physical, mechanistic approaches to regaining skills like dressing or eating, the heckler pointed out that she would rather focus on being able to see her friends or go to the cinema than spend hours re-learning to put her pants on – with or without a mechanical grabber.

When we cost out care in the units of time required to meet someone’s basic physical needs, we reduce that person to the sum of their bodily functions.

Projects which focus on the individual (rather than their undergarments) are not only valuable, they are meeting a need which is set to become increasingly acute.

By 2032 there will be 60 per cent more older people requiring care at home. But the number of people able to care for their older parents is only going to increase by 20 per cent

So who will connect with the 1.1 million older people who’ll need care in 18 years’ time?

Playing Wii or sampling beer doesn’t sound like ‘care’ in the same way as helping someone go to the loo, or cutting up their food for them.

But by tacking loneliness and social isolation, projects like NET offer a meaningful intervention that resonates in people’s lives – as well as bringing all sorts of health benefits; from improved cognitive abilities and reduced anxiety to lower risk of falls. We need more projects like this – and we need to view our older generation as people, with interests and skills, not just as the recipients of care.

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