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Older people can be provoking

By Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing 29 October 2013

Lynne Berry OBE is Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing, Deputy-Chair of the new Canal and River Trust, a Non-Executive Director of Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust and a Senior Fellow at CASS Business School. She has had several Chief Executive posts: WRVS, the General Social Care Council, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Family Welfare Association and was the Executive Director of the Charity Commission. She has served on many Government bodies including the Office of Civil Society Advisory Board and several Better Regulation Task forces. 

As she prepared for her exhibition at Frankfurt’s Kunsthalle, Yoko Ono, aged 80, was asked whether she thought the role of older artists was to mentor and champion young artists. No, she responded, I’m still investing in my own future. In her ninth decade, she continues to work, to be economically and artistically active and to lead public debate—not least on society’s expectations of women, artists and older people.

Ageing can be difficult, but for many people it is just a continuation of a lifetime of personal, social and economic engagement. And so what difference will an increasingly busy and active older generation have on the voluntary sector? What will the voluntary sector expect of older people – and what will older people expect of it?

As we launch the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing – set up by NPC and ILC-UK to examine issues facing the sector as the age profile of the population changes – I have asked the Commissioners to come to our first meeting today with their two most outlandish thoughts. I want them to provoke the others, to tell them—if we could start again—what a vibrant voluntary sector that really understands and addresses the challenges of an ageing society would look like.

One of the Commissioners asked me if I really meant it; whether there are things that can’t be said, that are out of bounds. Absolutely not. I want the Commissioners to think the unthinkable, and with the collection of free thinkers and wise heads that we’ve put together, I think we’ll manage that.

By the most wonderful coincidence, today I’m also speaking to the CAF Parliamentary Inquiry on Growing Giving, chaired by David Blunkett MP. Alongside others giving evidence, I will be talking about the way older people support charities, and how they can use their experiences and generosity to inspire future generations. This Inquiry is also looking for new ideas, new provocations.

We seem to be with the zeitgeist!

We do want something to happen as a result of all these ideas, to make sure that our unthinkable thoughts don’t became impossible dreams. And so to keep us grounded, I’m very excited that another group of eminent people, knowledgeable in the ways of the voluntary sector and experienced in using the skills of older people to the full, has agreed to join our expert panel.

We’re going to have a great deal of material and we’ll be looking for more. The process begins with gathering evidence and doing research, moving on to engaging the sector even more widely and then drawing together ideas of good practice, nuggets of great thinking that we can encourage, support and showcase. All this needs some strategic thinking and a focus on identifying practical approaches to the opportunities that will come. After all, like Yoko Ono, many of us will be using our creative energies into our ninth decade—and if just some of that energy and innovation can be harnessed by the voluntary sector, it will have a thriving and useful future.