A charity for life?

There are a whole range of charities advocating for the rights of children and reaching out to support them. There are youth and education charities that focus on the years of transition between childhood and adult life. But by adulthood, the voluntary sector largely leaves people alone.

If we become parents we might fall back into embrace of family charities. If we have relationship problems we might find counselling and mediation services. But once the kids have grown up we’re left alone once again, until we lurch into the arms of the older people’s charities like Age UK and the Royal Voluntary Service for our final years.

While I believe specialist skills are needed, I’m not convinced that separating organisations concerned with an array of issues – mental health, housing, education, leisure, well being, the environment and so on – are best served by creating a sole focus on one age group.

This might make sense in the short term, of course – children have particular needs and interests, distinct from those of older people. But take a step back and it reveals a glaring gap: the narrow age-bound perspective each charity adopts means no-one is helping us to look out for our longer-term interests. Who is looking ahead at the lives of today’s five year olds, anticipating when they turn 70?

I sometimes feel that the middle-aged are the least understood age group of all – as if they have no problems, challenges or opportunities and, just as importantly for the voluntary sector,  nothing to contribute.

This matters because our well-being in older age is primarily determined by what happens to us earlier in life. Our lifestyle particularly in middle age is a significant predictor of our health in later life, when so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’ like diabetes and heart disease take effect. Our income and savings in middle age are vital to our chances of a decent income decades later.

So what are the remedies?

Some have wondered whether we should radically rethink the role of charities and think tanks. They could focus on a cohort approach, tied to a particular generation, and work with their hopes and needs for the whole of their lives. For example, an institution might assume responsibility for children born between 2005 and 2015, plotting the consequences for their older age of decisions taken now, and continuing to do so throughout their lives.

Another way would be for existing charities to begin thinking about how they work in the interests of all of us, whatever our age. Identifying issues that will benefit people now and ensure we’re ready for the future, avoiding short-term gain which merely stores up costs for later. If we did that ourselves then we’d be in a much stronger position to demand the same of government and corporate partners. It’s hard to demand that others are joined up across the life stages when we are not.

I chair the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, set up by NPC and ILC-UK. When we launched our first report earlier this year, we were largely optimistic about the potential of an older population, and a more integrated society where the contributions of all ages are valued. We also acknowledged the grave challenges facing older people – social isolation, poor health, discrimination, poverty. Yesterday’s Early Action Task Force report, Looking Forward to Later Life, confirms again that these are a feature of later life for millions of people at present; but that this is not inevitable.

If we are to build the age of opportunity that we called for, then waiting until we are older already is leaving it too late. The task force calls for a new vision for later life – it is up to our sector to lead it. That means opening up beyond our traditional age silos and thinking across the life course. That’s the only way we will ensure we’re ready for later life.

Lynne Berry is the chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing