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Grasping the ageing nettle

As inventor Thomas Edison once wrote, ‘We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything’. Hypotheses about our universe and everything in it are written and over-written continuously. We have only scratched the surface of the store of knowledge that will come to us.

And yet one thing we know beyond any doubt is that our society is ageing. This raises problems and opportunities for just about everyone, which is precisely why we set up the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing—to help charities confront what it might mean.

One of the issues that bedevils the ageing space is that we are not sure which interventions and approaches work and which do not. In a period where resource is going to be tight and needs are going to be growing, that is a very worrying thought. And actually the problem goes deeper, because in many areas we are not really sure what we are trying to achieve—what ‘success’ looks like.

Things may be clearer in the area of social care and health. A successful charity or intervention may be one that keeps older people out of hospital by helping reduce falls at home, or by providing care so that they can be discharged from hospital earlier. In this case, we can calculate savings to the public purse.

But working out if we have achieved a reduction in isolation and loneliness is much harder. And it might also be misleading. Following bereavement, a widow may be lonely living in the old family house, but this does not mean her (or increasingly his—men will live longer too as our society ages) well-being will be improved by being frog-marched out of somewhere that is familiar, has precious memories and local connections, to a place where she, or he, can be with other people.

The complexity of even defining what we are trying to measure means that too many of the sector, funders as well as providers, throw out any search for efficacy and just fund what feels good. This is not good enough. And what feels good for today’s older people may not fulfil the wants of tomorrow’s.

That is why the emerging creation of a What Works Centre in this area—called the Centre for Ageing Better—could be so important. It will be putting together what we know about what works and reaching out to help evaluate policies too.

The danger, however, is that it does not get used; that it becomes a repository of great information that just sits there. Our Commission is partly aimed at provoking the sector into wanting to search out evidence of what works and adapting strategies to take them into account. But the other thing that needs to happen is to get funders to start thinking harder about how and what they fund in this space. If funders starting looking for evidence before they provide funding that would help. And if those funded had to produce some measurement data and, better still, share the findings with the community, then we might really be starting to motor.

Starting to confront the issue of ageing for the voluntary sector cannot be delayed. Better evidence and changing the behaviour of funders is a key part in taking us forward to achieve this.