People’s surplus time is something we can make much more of, particularly with regard to the needs of older people who are isolated or who feel vulnerable. To capitalise on this resource we have to tackle those obstacles that reduce people’s propensity to offer their surplus time. The solutions may be many but include technologies that allow people to identify where their surplus time, however marginal, can be used to good effect, achieving a better connectedness between formal care, informal family care and other community support, enabling organisations and groups to increase mutual support within existing structures, changing the perception of what older people have to offer, and supporting people to create their own systems of informal support. For each of these proposals there is a practical agenda. Finally, and perhaps most difficult to attach practical actions, we need a different ‘meme’ for supporting people that helps people to understand it as an everyday action for everyone.
An ageing crisis?
We are all familiar with the problems associated with an ageing society (proportion of over 80’s set to double by 2050 etc). We are commonly told that more older people equals more dependency, less productivity and greater pressure on public services. Medical research may transform our conception of old age and its effects (for example, the development of immune therapies to combat cancer) but we have to suppose, for now at least, that many more people will come to rely on others to manage day-to-day. The ageing ‘crisis’ together with reductions in welfare spending has prompted the search for ‘hidden assets’: how can we get more from what we’ve got. The terms ‘social capital’ and ‘community capacity’ have become popularised. Greater recognition has been given to projects that get people to give more or to enter into reciprocal relationships (like time banks and Southwark Circle) where opportunities for exchange are multiplied. However, the face of what seems at times to be an overwhelming problem, we can lose confidence that change can happen on a big enough scale to prevent the irreversible decline of our welfare system.
It is argued here that we can have some room for optimism if we can think a little differently about how people and organisations behave. Should the thinking change, we might find that the support that older people will require is, for some at least, readily available.
Surplus time in a Sharing Economy
The Sharing Economy takes many forms but most are based on the premise that, in a well connected world, one person’s demand can be met by another’s willingness to meet that demand .. and on reasonable terms. For example, one person’s need for comfortable temporary accommodation is met through another person with surplus space (airbnb). One person’s need for transport to work is met through another with a spare seat in their car (liftshare.com). As long as there are people with the capacity and propensity to provide something that’s needed, there’s no limit to what can be provided through the sharing economy.
In communities there is probably less doubt about the capacity of ordinary people to help each other out than there is about their propensity to help. There are few people who are able to say that they haven’t wasted any time in the previous day/week/month. Many of us have surplus and potentially wasted time and some of us have large amounts. Many people with surplus time like the idea of using their time to better effect but encounter obstacles and disincentives which reduce their propensity to make that time available to others. If we can tackle those obstacles and disincentives we can increase people’s propensity to make time available to others.
Obstacles to making available surplus time
One obstacle is people’s perception that their surplus time is marginal and therefore unusable. For example, “I find myself with a bit of time on my hands, but it’s usually just before I have to pick the children up from school .. or after they’ve gone to bed”.
A second obstacle is that people underestimate how useful they could be. For example, many people are happy to help out a next-door neighbour when needed and to do this unconditionally. Correspondingly, many people are willing to ask for help from a next-door neighbour. It would not take much to persuade people to consider not just helping out a next-door neighbour but, if needed, helping out the person next-door-but-one or next-door-but-two. If that becomes commonplace people’s perceptions of what they have to offer begin to expand.
A third obstacle is that some of those people who feel ready to help out nevertheless are unwilling to be recruited to a project. People want the formality and sense of obligation that being part of a project or scheme implies. They want to be free to give on their own terms. Perhaps for these people we need something that doesn’t look like a project and feels more like an extension of the ordinary human giving that goes on in everyday life.
A fourth obstacle is that people who, in principle, are happy to make their surplus time available can feel exposed if they are left to do this on their own. For example, “I’m happy to help the man down the street but what if he needs first-aid or what if he accuses me of stealing his money?” It’s a sense of vulnerability or isolation.
Releasing people’s ‘marginal’ time
Often we fail to exploit or even consider the potential to make use of people’s surplus time especially when it’s ‘marginal’ time: available in small bits, or now and then with no regular or reliable pattern. Family members and friends are quite good at exploiting each other’s marginal time .. “Would you have time to babysit for us on Tuesday evening?” .. “Would you mind helping us to put up a fence this weekend?” etc. But we don’t seem to know how to tap into that resource among people who are not closely associated. Slivers of Time has recently developed some interesting software that can match volunteer time with people who can benefit from their time, and organisations like Hertfordshire County Council are using the software to good effect. We need commissioning and other organisations in localities to recognise what is being lost by ignoring people’s marginal surplus time. Technologies like Slivers of Time are important but so is attitude among people with marginal surplus time and organisations that can facilitate its release. For people to know and believe that their marginal surplus time can have real value for someone local to them creates many new possibilities.
Adapting systems and technologies
Our welfare culture is characterised by rigid demarcation lines. Welfare agencies do one thing (formal caring), families do another (informal caring) while other kinds of help are seen as supplementary, fortuitous or even incidental. There are connections between formal caring and informal (family) caring which are supported by law and policy. Personalisation and self-directed support go so far as to put people in need and their families into a lead, or instigator, role.
The connections with the ‘other kinds of help’, however, are most often absent or accidental. As welfare agencies address themselves more and more to people with high levels of need their connections with ‘other kinds of help’ are seen as less and less relevant.
We can imagine a different set of connections. Take this example:
Vic lives alone. His deteriorating health qualifies him for home care support arranged by the local authority and contracted to a private agency. His two daughters both live at some distance but take turns to visit him at weekends. One of Vic’s immediate neighbours drops in two or three times a week and there are three other people locally who know him well and would be willing to help out if needed.
As things stand, the family and neighbourhood help that Vic receives will become difficult to sustain as his health gets worse and he will find himself increasingly in the role of dependent client/patient. Suppose for a moment that the family and neighbourhood helpers are able to keep in touch with each other regularly to share information and advice; and that the agency can both share information with them regularly and offer them back-up when they feel uncertain about what they’re doing. The picture of a fragile network of help begins to change. Between them they can build a stronger lattice of support for Vic that holds together because everyone is working together. The demarcation between formal and informal help disappears. It is suggested here that ‘integrated care’ goes well beyond what health and local authority professionals do. To make the necessary changes we need both to re-think the role of care agencies and to consider the ways in which information sharing technology can be exploited to the full (look at Grouple, for example). The connectedness of formal and informal systems takes away one of the disincentives to people helping out, that is, the fear of being left isolated and vulnerable as a helper.
Making more of existing groups and organisations
Most of us have affiliations to, or association with, one or more groups or organisations: churches and faith groups, supporters’ clubs, employing organisations, service user groups, community associations etc. Each of these has the potential to evolve into an effective social network through which demands can be matched to people interested and willing to meet those demands. So, for example,
- in a church congregation the person who sits in the front pew gets to find out that the couple in the back pew could benefit from his knowledge of pensions and annuities
- in a local authority the person who works in the Housing Office discovers that the person who’s a clerk in Trading Standards can sit in one evening a week with his elderly mother
- in a street the person in number 9 finds out that the family in number 38 would love to look after her dog when she goes away
- in a football supporters club the person who sits in the South Stand discovers that the person who sits 4 rows behind him also has a disabled son who enjoys rock music
- in a patients support group the newly diagnosed person can ask for advice from others who have more experience of the condition.
This is the idea of ootiinoo. The premise is that much of what we need in terms of an infrastructure to support giving and sharing is already there. Thus people don’t have to become part of a special project to start helping others, they just need to fulfil the potential that always existed in the groups or organisations of which they already have membership. In any large town or city there are hundreds of such groups and organisations that, either alone or in alliance with others, can enable their members to provide support for each other.
Older people are the solution not the problem
It should be self-evident that the population of older people represents a huge resource for society. It is arguable that, even disregarding what goes on in families, most support for vulnerable older people comes from other older people: in supported housing schemes, social groups, holiday groups, faith groups and so on. Yet in some discussions everyone turning 50 is characterised as a problem and a burden about to happen. There is a growing literature that conjures up the prospect of a ‘positive old age’. But, in general, we continue to cast older people in a passive-dependent role. Achievements in old age are construed in terms of holding onto the remnants of good health, making good use of your bus pass, and perhaps, income allowing, crossing off a few items on the ‘bucket list’. And now, if it were not bad enough to carry the guilt of burdening society, older people find themselves accused of pocketing the benefits of the years of plenty to the disadvantage of the burdened younger generations. It’s little wonder that many people will quietly settle for a passive-dependent and self-contained retirement. What a waste! It shouldn’t be beyond our imagination to find new descriptions of retirement and old age in terms of what people can bring to the life of their communities including what they have to offer to other older people who have become estranged from everyday social life by illness and impairment. This isn’t about recruiting older people into new battalions of volunteers but removing some of the obstacles to giving time (see above) and enabling people to make contributions through the associations and affiliations they already have in their lives.
Empowering people to create their own support system
Personalised social care and health care is matched in current policy with the idea of ‘co-production’. The intended result is that people have as much control as they choose over the kind of support they receive and who provides that support. Getting that kind of help depends to a large extent on having a personal budget that corresponds to ‘assessed eligible needs’. Even if you have a personal budget, in times of tight rationing it may only go to meet what are assessed as ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ needs. What if you had the facility to do more for yourself? Our society is enthusiastic about some groups of people making informal connections to others they don’t currently know, for example, through a dating agency or the ‘soulmates’ section of the classified ads in the local paper. Somehow though, it’s not an accepted thing to go out looking for another person because you’re isolated or feel vulnerable (unless you’re prepared to rely on a voluntary agency to match you up with someone suitable). Surely we can work out ways in which older people can go out and find connections and relationships with others. This is more than co-production with a professional, it’s going out and doing it for yourself! (Some people with greater needs may want to go on a create their own Circle of Support.)
Visualising the part you can play
There is little in my area that shows me the part I can play in contributing to the wellbeing of my community, in particular, the wellbeing of older people who are isolated or feel vulnerable. We make the business of helping out quite an effort. Helping out is viewed as something remarkable, something that community ‘angels’ do, not part of everyone’s everyday life. If I want a coffee no such difficulty: on Google Maps I can find 30 places nearby for a coffee. I may know there are places where people can go to volunteer but the act of volunteering for most is still something of a mystery. Maybe it would help if Google Maps could show me all the great things that are going on in my community. If I, or I and my family, or I and my friends have something to offer how do we reveal this to others? There are systems like personal assistant directories where people selling their time can announce what they have available. There are also schemes like Streetbank where people who have something to share or give away can advertise the fact. These are great and we need to make more of them. At the same time we need to address the attitude that acts of giving and sharing are exceptional or unusual or have some association with an ‘alternative’ way of living. It is beyond the scope of these notes but there is something in the idea of giving that needs to change .. we need a different ‘meme’ for supporting people that allows us to visualise ‘giving support’ as an altogether more prosaic, accessible and routine activity.