Brian Sloan is recalling some of the older people he has been inspired by since he became chief executive of Age Scotland early last year.
“There was a lady called Margaret in Dumfries who is disabled and she told us that she had spent the whole of 2012 waiting in her home to die. She had no transport links to allow her to engage with her community. Very fortunately, through our campaign about making concessionary schemes available for community transport, the local authority in Dumfries and the transport company made sure she now has a link and she is engaged back in the community. I met Margaret this year and she is the most engaging individual. She is back in one of our member groups and is an inspiration to people in that group. And here was a lady who was really in a very dark place.”
Then there was an 82-year-old gentleman who he met in Tranent at the men’s sheds project, which Age Scotland helped to fund.
“In his own words, he contemplated suicide when he lost his wife through bereavement about four years ago. The men’s shed has engaged him back in the community and has given him a purpose in life. He was a joiner to trade. He is well respected within the shed and he is showing young people his skills.”
Good health, seeing friends and family and having enough money to be comfortable, are the things Scots rate as most important to ensuring a fulfilling life, according to a survey that was revealed at the charity’s first national conference - Later Life: Tae Mak it Worth Bein’ - last week.
The Scottish population aged 60 and over is projected to increase by 43 per cent between 2012 and 2037, while among those aged 75 and over, the increase is projected as 86 per cent.
In 2011/12, NHSScotland and councils spent approximately £4.5bn on care for older people. The Scottish Government has estimated that this will need to rise to £8bn by 2031 and has described demographic change as one of the three biggest challenges facing Scotland – alongside economic recovery and climate change.
Enabling older people to have a more active, engaged life will increase health and wellbeing and ultimately reduce that health and social care bill, Sloan points out. And yet, he says that “stereotypes of our older population as costly users of services, and of our changing population structure as a ‘demographic timebomb’, still prevail.”
It’s true that later life can bring challenges, which is why he says the charity continues to offer information, friendship and advice through their free helpline and is encouraging older people to plan for the ageing journey, such as by preparing a will and considering making their current home more adaptable as they age.
However, he stresses that older people aren’t just recipients of care and says the “huge and growing” contribution that older people make to our society is too often overlooked.
Of an estimated 657,300 unpaid carers in Scotland, 20 per cent are thought to be aged 65 or over.
“Our sister charity Age UK estimated the value of grandparenting childcare at about £7.9bn per year to the UK economy. Older people are also typically providing care to their spouses. I don’t think we fully know the value of that because it goes very much unsung. People just get on with it and, very admirably, see it as a sense of duty.”
However, he warns that this care should not be taken for granted.
The feedback the charity receives from older people is that they wish to remain in their homes as long as possible, and so Age Scotland supports the Scottish Government’s ambition for more people to be cared for at home or in a homely setting. However, it has some concerns over progress.
In February, Audit Scotland warned that progress on reshaping care for older people has been slow and inconsistent. While last month, it reported that the effort invested in meeting annual targets, within a context of tightening budgets is hindering NHS boards’ attempts to reshape care in line with national policy.
Sloan says they support the general direction of travel and understand it can’t happen overnight, but adds that realising it will require investment and buy-in from all the professionals, and a willingness to work on an equal basis, particularly with the voluntary and independent sectors.
For its own part, Age Scotland will continue to support older people to live well and make the most of later life, he says, while also encouraging others to change their perceptions of our older population.
“Increasingly people are seeing their later years as a time to travel, take up new pastimes, volunteer or continue in employment, but I don’t think the image of older people that many of us walk around with has kept pace with this. It’s time society re-evaluated its perception of later life and sees the potential of our older population, which is a result of lives lived, lessons learnt and mistakes made.”