Scotland’s elderly population cannot wait indefinitely for political decisions that will affect their future, says Katie Docherty
BEHIND a shop-front window, in a concrete pedestrian precinct in the suburbs of Irvine, something is happening that is of critical importance to the future of health and social care services in Scotland.
Every weekday Broomlands and Bourtreehill Age Concern opens its doors to local older people who would otherwise be isolated.
At 10am, volunteer driver Alan heads out in the minibus to collect those who can’t make it under their own steam.
He notices the change when people start using the service. “It brings them out, and they really start to live a wee bit rather than sit watching the television,” he says.
The bus rolls in and out of seemingly every cul-de-sac like a ball in a maze puzzle. Banter levels rise with the number of passengers, dipping only when they learn that one regular won’t be joining them today after a bad fall.
“We did find a lady at the back of her door once,” says Alan. “Luckily it was open and we alerted the ambulance. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t come.”
The bus arrives in time for lunch. “The food is excellent and the staff very pleasant,” says Minette, who regularly attends the centre.
She’s looking forward to choir practice later in preparation for a performance at Irvine’s Volunteer Rooms, where last year she sang a verse of Somewhere over the Rainbow, solo. “I just loved it, singing away, not the least bit nervous,” she says.
For Cathie, the opportunity to enjoy creative art has been the revelation. “I never painted or drew before, but the young lady who taught us here gave me a set of paints because I had done so well.”
Betty Weir chairs and volunteers full-time for the service. “We provide meals, entertainment, help with problems, form-filling – anything at all to help them stay active and healthy in their community. We’re like an extended family.”
Cathie, who has been at the centre almost every day for 20 years, testifies to this. “They’re so kind and any problem you’ve got, they get it sorted out,” she says. “It’s lonely sitting in the house all day, but here I’ve made lots of friends and we all help each other. I don’t know what I would do without the place.”
While the day flows smoothly and is full of laughs and smiles, under the surface the centre is paddling hard to keep afloat. “We get help in kind but not much funding, and the last couple of years have been a challenge,” says Betty.
Recently she’s seen a change in demand for the service. “There have been a lot more people coming in, through social services, in the early stages of dementia. We can let their families work, knowing their parents are being looked after.”
Betty says lack of transport places major constraints on the number of people able to benefit from the service. “Age Scotland helped us a couple of years back to get a new bus, but it only takes 16 people,” she sayd. “Public buses can only take one wheelchair at a time and aren’t great if you have a stick or Zimmer.”
Age Scotland has broadly welcomed the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure citizens enjoy health and wellbeing in later life, including integration of health and social care services and initiatives to rebalance services with greater emphasis on prevention.
But the experience of Broomlands and Bourtreehill Age Concern, and many hundreds of similar groups across Scotland, shows that some vital pieces are missing from the puzzle.
Take transport. This year, a one-off grant fund of £1 million for new community minibuses was announced by the Scottish Government following months of action from Age Scotland as part of our “Still Waiting” campaign. While a welcome boost, the fact it was over-subscribed by a factor of four demonstrates the massive unmet need for community transport services. That the Scottish Government seems to be waking up to the importance of community transport is welcome, but there is still no long-term strategy to increase and sustain provision in line with the needs of a rapidly ageing population. Official research into the sector being undertaken this year should help identify the best means to support it, but if this delays urgent investment decisions until after the referendum some services may struggle – or even close in the meantime.
The bill for inaction will eventually be paid, several times over, from health and social care budgets. Public sector referrals to third sector groups are a welcome recognition of their value, and should the concept of “social prescription” gain more currency we can expect these to increase. But adequate funding has to follow, otherwise services become overwhelmed, or are forced to either ration access or increase costs.
If we are to be serious about preventative spending, we need to look beyond public sector solutions and make sure that Cathie, Minette and many thousands like them can enjoy help and support from their extended third sector families.
• Katie Docherty is director of charity services at Age Scotland www.agescotland.org.uk