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I love that film.  I am uneasily amused by the idea of being stuck in the same time loop endlessly.  Seemingly nothing you can do will break out of this trap, there are no consequences to your actions, and it will always be 2 February with Sonny and Cher waking you up singing ‘I got you babe’ …unless and until, that is, you discover the redemption of altruism and love.  Lockdown has felt like Groundhog Day without Sonny and Cher.

Ageing policy has endured far too many Groundhog Days.  In his review of community care[i] in 1988 Sir Roy Griffiths described social care as “everyone’s distant relative, but nobody’s baby”. Yet here we are in 2020, with neither adequate funding adequate nor fair policies, after countless reviews and empty political promises. The 25,000 hospital patients discharged to care homes without testing for Covid-19 in March and April bear recent witness to a long-term neglect of long-term care[ii].  Society, and our leaders, still have a mental block about this huge and vital part of the way we care.

In her coruscating and evidence-based manifesto for ageing in 2008, ‘Not Dead Yet’[iii], Julia Neuberger pointed in outrage at nearly two million older people living below the poverty line. This month Anna Dixon’s version of a manifesto for ageing, ‘The Age of Ageing Better’[iv] has shown that we are stuck at the same level of poverty in later life. 

That inspiring figure well known to the BSG, Mima Cattan, captured twenty years ago the experiences, frustrations and wishes of isolated older people at risk of becoming lonely[v], before carrying out an influential systematic review[vi] in this area.  Yet even after a decade of strenuous campaigning by the Campaign to End Loneliness, surveys continue to report disturbing proportions (low percentages = large numbers) of older and younger people who feel life has left them behind, who have the painful sense of a gap between the social contact they have and the social contact they crave, as we have defined loneliness[vii]

Has our ‘passionate scholarship’ led to equally energetic action ?  It’s tempting to conclude that research and advocacy have had a limited impact.  Personally I think there are reasons to be cheerful.  To start with, the past lockdown months have shown, awesomely, the support and generosity mobilised to help one another.  Individual streets and “hyper-local’ groups have found their moment.  The spirit has certainly been willing, to break through and reach those who struggle most.

We have of course been forced to confront terrible inequalities.  We have seen an unacceptable digital divide become an outrageous digital chasm. Many of us who were online and reasonably tech-savvy found new virtual experiences giving us joy and connection.  But meanwhile nearly five million people aged over 55 remain offline[viii], hence excluded from these enhancements as well as from the basic opportunities of internet access. But herein is the direction for a better future.   Have we the wit and the will to make an effort to do something about this ?

Some have been surprised to find that their unaccustomed confinement is in fact the norm in practice for so many housebound, disabled or impoverished people, who lack access to normal opportunity. This discovery should surely generate new will to energise help to our neighbours to get around, and better connection with the “hard-to-reach”.  And it ought to be a matter of right that older people should be enabled to enjoy the life-enhancing experiences now available in for example, the Armchair Gallery[ix] (viewing Old Masters vividly, despite being unable to get out of your front door) or a Virtual Choir (where you can be active in making music and, the evidence shows, feel in so doing that social buzz of being with other people[x]).

Research has already unearthed answers. Practitioners wishing to make the ‘new normal’ a better place should be studying these.  Important work has been done in recent years for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[xi] (JRF) and Carnegie UK Trust[xii] about how communities can be better connected, and how acts of kindness are made everyday reality.  We should be re-learning from the likes of Simon Anderson, Julie Brownlie and Gillian Sandstrom about the “infrastucture of kindness”, the value of weak ties and minor everyday actions, and about how community spaces can bring people together, making it more likely that acts of kindness and connection will actually take place. 

The impulse to reach out and help has never been more in evidence. We’ve enjoyed not only community connectors and link workers through the initiative of ‘social prescribing’, but also, within communities themselves, Big Lunches, Neighbour Days, Great Get-togethers, Loneliness Awareness Weeks.  All enjoyable events but, most important of all because they are vital symbolic mechanisms to lift the narrative of how we all can act in our communities.  Leading organisations have a crucial role in changing the narrative and culture from one of individual enterprise, pursuit of success and self-preoccupation.  They need to give permission to employees and representatives to “go beyond the script” of our often normal stilted communication.  With that encouragement we can ourselves make acts of kindness simply “the way we do things here”, as the Carnegie and JRF work demonstrated.

 “New normal” must not be a resigned acceptance of lowered expectations of social connection, forced upon us. It should be the rebirth of community building on the solid foundations of evidence about communities, kindness and loneliness. Now’s our chance to keep faith with Jo Cox’s fundamental  message that we have far more in common than that which divides us.  Redemption could be ours, and we might then move on to “3 February”.

[i] ‘Community Care: An Agenda for Action’ (Roy Griffiths, 1988).

[ii]  “25,060 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes between 17 March and 15 April 2020”, according to a report by the National Audit Office 12 June 2020, https://www.nao.org.uk

[iii]  ‘Not Dead Yet: a manifesto for old age’, Julia Neuberger, 2008, Harper Collins.

[iv]  ‘The Age of Ageing Better: a manifesto for our future’, Anna Dixon, 2020, Cenre for Ageing Better, Green Tree.

[v]  ‘Supporting older people to overcome social isolation and loneliness’, Mima Cattan, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2002, Help the Aged.

[vi]  ‘Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions’, Mima Cattan et al, 2005, Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Peplau L A and Perlman ‘Perspectives on loneliness’ in ‘Loneliness: a Sourcebook of Current Theory, Research and Therapy’, 1982 John Wiley & sons .

[viii] “Millions of over-55s not using internet risk being locked out of essential services and online benefits”, Centre for Ageing Better, www.ageing-better.org.uk,  citing ONS figures released 31 May 2018.

[ix] Armchair Gallery brings world-class art and culture to someone stuck at home: http://www.imaginearts.org.uk via the Armchair App, developed by City Arts Nottingham with support from the Baring Foundation.

[x] ‘Present in Body or Just in Mind: Differences in Social Presence and Emotion Regulation in Live vs Virtual Singing Experiences’, Fancourt D and Steptoe A, published in Frontiers of Psychology April 2019.

[xi] For example ‘The Liveable Lives Study: Understanding Everyday Help and Support’,  and ‘Between Kith and Kin and Formal Services: Everyday Support in the ‘Middle Layer’’, Anderson S, Brownlie J, Milne E-J, May 2015, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[xii] For example ‘Kinder Communities: the Power of Everyday Relationships’, Ferguson Z, 2016 Dunfermline Carnegie UK Trust.