The third briefing paper of our Condition of Britain series considers what life is like for older people in Britain today, and what issues are making it harder for them to sustain strong relationships and involvement in community life. What would it take for every older person to feel independent, valued and connected to those around them?

Getting older in Britain no longer necessarily means being poor, thanks to sustained improvements in older people's living standards and significant falls in pensioner poverty over the last 30 years. However, longer life expectancy, the breakdown of extended families and the growing number of older people living alone is making it harder for them to sustain strong relationships and connections to community life. Furthermore, despite having a rising employment rate and devoting a relatively high proportion of their time to volunteering and caring, older people often find that their knowledge, experience and hard work are not fully recognised, or that their need for companionship is overlooked.

This paper draws together testimony and evidence from a variety of sources to give a comprehensive assessment of the most pressing issues facing older people in the UK. It then sets out the main questions and alternative approaches that policymakers at all levels need to consider and address to ensure that older generations are engaged with and supported by their communities.

Among the questions posed by this paper are:

  • How could employment support in Britain be reconfigured to help older people stay in work?
  • How can we strengthen local institutions that help older people to sustain friendships and stay connected to those around them?
  • How can we harness the energy and experience of older people to offer support and companionship to others experiencing loneliness?
  • What new democratic arrangements would allow older people and their families to have more of a say about how formal care is organised?

The five briefing papers in this series are brought together with a new introduction by Nick Pearce, Graeme Cooke and Kayte Lawton in the Condition of Britain interim report, published in December 2013.

Garforth Neighbourhood Elders Team - an extract

The Garforth Neighbourhood Elders Team (Garforth NET) is a local charity supporting older people in Garforth, a small town on the edge of Leeds, and in 13 nearby villages. Garforth is a relatively affluent town, but many of the surrounding villages are former mining communities that have experienced problems with unemployment and antisocial behaviour.

Garforth NET was set up in the mid-1990s by four churches that were concerned about isolation and loneliness among older people. The charity now has around 2,000 people using its services, which include a varied programme of social activities and a befriending service for those who find it hard to leave their house. The organisation is one of 37 'neighbourhood networks' that Leeds city council has helped to build up over the last 20 years. These are independent and locally-rooted organisations that support older people to take part in a range of social and cultural activities, and to make long-lasting friendships with people living nearby.

Like all neighbourhood networks, Garforth NET relies heavily on volunteers, many of whom are older people themselves, but also has paid workers who support volunteers and manage programmes. Dorothy is in her seventies, and has been volunteering at Garforth NET for five years. Before that she volunteered at a local school helping children with their reading. She likes having the opportunity to 'give something back' and make a difference in people's lives. At Garforth NET, she makes drinks at coffee mornings and talks to guests, making sure that no one is left by themselves. She also makes calls to people they haven't seen for a while to make sure they are alright. Dorothy has a busy social life: she sees her sister each week and goes for lunch with friends every Wednesday, and is also a member of a local walking group.