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The Big Society - Needs National Citizen Service For The Aged

Mal Fletcher
Posted 25 July 2010
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Any political party that has been out of power for more than 13 years will naturally want to bring with it a big idea when it next fills the government benches.

For David Cameron and his Lib-Con marriage of inconvenience, that big idea is called the Big Society.

In part, I suspect, the title represents an attempt to contrast the new regime with the Big Government ways of its predecessor. It is also, of course, a response to the urgent need for cuts in spending on social services - in the hope that, at the same time, at least some services might be maintained if not improved by volunteers.

Whether or not the Big Project becomes more than just a grand idea will depend largely on three things.

The first is whether the government can stay the course. In any enterprise or industry, it is always easier to launch something then to maintain it. This is especially true in government, where multiple, urgent crises and shifting public opinion on major issues conspire to distract politicians from finishing what they start.

The success of the Big Society project will also rest on whether the government can think strategically beyond the limits of its planned five year term.

"The politician thinks of the next election," it's been said, "but the statesman thinks of the next generation." Ideas that produce significant cultural change require statesmanship, which seems sadly to be beyond the reach of many of today's political classes.

The third and possibly most decisive factor for David Cameron's big idea is whether politicians and voters alike can recognize the limitations of politics when it comes to producing change.

One of the reasons for the breakdown of social fabric today is that citizens have stopped participating in many of the activities that traditionally bonded a community together and gave it a sense of identity.

Little more than a generation ago, local sporting events, youth and children's clubs and, for some, religious activities contributed to a feeling that we are responsible for and to each other. They provided opportunities for people to involve themselves in something larger than the family, yet smaller and more accessible than the "society".

In most places today, these activities play a much less prominent role in local life. In their absence, we often find ourselves feeling essentially powerless to address social problems. Except, that is, via the ballot box, through political processes.

Politics, once something that operated at the periphery of our lives, has now moved much nearer to centre stage. In some ways, we've come to the point where we and the politicians we elect actually believe that only politics can reshape society for the good; that the only worthwhile solutions are political ones.

Yet the very best governments are those that don't try to do everything.

For an idea like that the Big Society to work, politicians must play the leadership role, continually articulating the vision for community involvement. At the same time, they must provide the environment in which this can flourish - which will in this case mean deliberately and boldly reducing the role of the government machine.

When it comes to public services, government can facilitate, promote and measure results, but it can't do all that needs to be done on the ground.

In the end, two pressing areas of social need will provide an important measure for the success of the Big Society project.

It's been said that we can judge the health of a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members, especially the young and the very old.

In the past week, Mr Cameron has shared his plans to involve the young in social change. His plan for a national citizen service is designed to teach 16-year-old school-leavers a sense of social responsibility.

Our extensive generational research has shown that this generational cohort are, generally speaking, much more civic-minded than their Boomer or Generation X forebears. A national citizen programme might connect well with the drive within the Millennial generation to marry blue skies thinking with down-to-earth activism.

As yet, though, the government has made no specific announcements on how it wants to improve care for the aged under the Big Society umbrella.

With this in mind, a BBC Panorama programme tonight will look at the plight of the elderly in British society, as the first wave of baby boomers moves toward retirement.

I can't help feeling that we might do well to have a version of the national citizenship service tailored for the elderly.

Perhaps we need to stop thinking of the elderly merely as recipients of care and start seeing them as powerful potential contributors to a stronger community fabric.

Whether they live at home or in residential care, most old people I've met hate the idea of being a burden on society. Throughout their lives they've made a huge investment into their communities and into society as a whole, by raising responsible children, working in productive jobs, saving for financial independence, supporting community projects and paying their taxes.

Despite the limitations placed on them by diminished physical stamina - and, in some cases, mental sharpness - they still long to be recognised for their experience and respected for what they can contribute in the present, for the future.

My elderly mother lives in Australia, which faces some of the same challenges with elderly care as we do in the UK. She suffers a mild form of Alzheimer's and after the death of my father, we were able to place her in an excellent care facility set in rolling countryside outside of Melbourne.

The move has helped to bring her a whole new lease on life, for several reasons. Firstly, the facility doesn't feel like an institution. The staff work hard to promote a homely environment for their guests. They succeed in part because of the work of committed, young locals who volunteer for specific roles in providing hands-on care.

Here in the UK, groups like the Community Service Volunteers organisation, use volunteers in the same way -- to provide companionship and practical support for the elderly. Volunteers are trained and then released to organise walks, health education programmes, home visits and "dinner partnerships" for folks living within care facilities.

Volunteers also play an important role in helping the elderly on visits to hospitals. According to CSV, where volunteers are involved with the direct support of elderly patients in hospitals, prescriptions drop by 30% and hospital appointments by 36%.

On a national scale, it says, taking up this practice could say the government £3 billion per year.

The third reason my mother is thriving in her new environment is, I think, the most important. The facility and the community of which it is a part provide active opportunities for elderly people to invest their skills for the wider good.

My mother has always been particularly gifted in and passionate about working with children. So the opportunity to coach remedial students in reading at local primary schools was something she grabbed with both hands.

Were the UK government to launch a national citizenship service for the elderly, perhaps through coordinating the efforts of CSV-like organizations, the benefits would be enormous for the young as well as the old.

Young volunteers who work with people like my mother learn a sense of responsibility to others, plus a sense of their own value and skills. They also get a sense of what it takes to run the long race in life.

In an age of rapid and often random change - not least to the family - children and young people need voices of experience, people who can help them develop perspective and a sense of their place in history.

Helping young people to see the longer view and their responsibility to shape the future might have a potent impact on our problem with teenage binge-drinking and the party culture.

Allowing young people to bolster their self-esteem by adopting and caring for a granny might help reduce our booming teen pregnancy rate - still one of the highest in Europe.

The passing on of life's wisdom is just one part of the unique contribution the elderly can make. They should not be seen merely as recipients of care, but as providers of unique services too.

The Big Society must reach out first to society's most vulnerable. In the end, we cannot have a Big Society without adopting a big heart.

Copyright Mal Fletcher 2010

What’s your view?

Can community volunteers significantly lift services for the aged?



Keywords: elderly | big society | david cameron

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Hi, thanks for the Mal Fletcher Daily Recharge!
Ray, New Zealand

Thank you for the Daily Recharges, they always speak such amazing insight and revelation to me. It is truly inspiring!!
Ruth, Australia

As a Care Home Manager for older people...[I see that] the culture of the family unit has changed, but I'm heartened by those that come to work as carers & give quality care & love to the residents.
Jude Goode, United Kingdom

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