Shortly after COVID arrived, demands were made to use it as the opportunity to do things differently, just as cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century led to clean water supplies and sewage systems. This is summarised as ‘Build Back Better’ — the wake-up call that COVID exacerbated problems, requiring us to come together and plan to improves people’s lives and prosperity.
For older people this could be appealing. COVID has had a dramatic effect not just the tragic death toll, but acute challenges for health and wellbeing, highlighting structural inequalities. There is a long list of problems facing older people which need tackling and are overdue.
We now have a growing industry of ‘recovery’ with cities across the world embarking on Recovery Plans. The tenets of this new recovery are the emphasis on radical change, not returning to normal and an ambition for better. Cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds as well as Wales have all started recovery planning, and London set up a London Recovery Board to set a bold plan ‘to reimagine our city’. The critical test though will become how well recovery plans cater for older people. Positive Ageing in London, an organisation representing age organisations across London, has been heavily lobbying London’s decision makers for the London Recovery Plan to ensure it meets the needs of the growing numbers of older Londoners.
So, what are the early lessons from ‘recovery’? Will it be that policy panacea for older people sorting out problems and making the UK Age Friendly?
Firstly, there are a lot of competing priorities and contested positions about who should benefit. Recovery must restore and re-shape services, cope with hard economic shocks, juggle competing demands for money, reinstill confidence, as well as set out an appealing vision for the future. The key is what can be delivered on the ground to make a difference with scarce resources. The pandemic has hit all age groups hard, and there has rightly been a focus on those whose jobs and livelihoods have been put at risk. But the needs of older people including those in employment, those being forced to retire and those no longer working are also essential and must be continually emphasised in recovery rather than being side-lined. For example, older workers need programmes of bespoke training and support to remain in work, support to retrain if facing redundancy, and support to challenge age discrimination in recruitment.
Secondly, ‘recovery’ assumes an end in sight to COVID, but the spectre is now living with COVID for some time. Recovery should tackle the problems piling up, as much as the longer-term aspirations portrayed in gushing prose — providing quick valued demonstrable wins for older people, rather than jam tomorrow. The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales report, ‘No One Left Behind’ is a good example outlining short term priorities to tackle immediate problems facing older people such as an action plan for care homes ahead of the winter and reopening community facilities.
Third, recovery should follow principles to help older people. Fundamentally not all older people are the same, they are not all vulnerable and in need. Stereotypes linger and unconsciously creep into planning. Older Londoners are a truly diverse group with different needs, interests, and activities — who work, volunteer, support the community and help the economy. Recovery plans need hard evidence, not assumptions about what older people are thought to need. There must be research in tandem with collaboration, to hear their views and interpret findings. Emerging plans need to assess the impact on older people rather than rely on untested views. For example, in the rush in London to roll out COVID secure streets and expand cycling routes the needs of older pedestrians were forgotten. They need safe age friendly urban spaces designed around their needs.
Finally, recovery needs true engagement with older people at a formative stage on the priorities for action. Recovery needs to be done with and not to older people. Any compelling future needs wide debate, engagement to get ideas and buy in from older people at a time when the public appetite for an upbeat recovery is limited amid a second wave.
So, the challenge is how during this uncertain period of ‘living with COVID-19 ‘older people don’t become a neglected generation. Whilst they stoically follow the rules and quietly keep themselves safe at home, their future needs may be forgotten. Each city in the UK should formally be required to have a clear recovery plan for older people which tackles the problems being faced, but also sets out a clear age friendly vision for the future giving much needed hope in what could be a bleak future for many.