The role of business in the Big Society
There are currently 10.5 million people aged 65 or over in the UK; by 2035 this (rising) figure will make up close to a quarter of our population. As acknowledged in the Government’s White Paper on Social Care this week, more needs to be done to intervene early at a local level to support our ageing population in staying healthy and socially active.
However, there are a number of threats to these laudable aims. Due to a combination of long-term changes in local economies, funding cuts and forced closures, many social spaces that are important to older people (including post offices, local pubs and libraries) are disappearing or have gone already. The ‘hollowed out’ communities that are left behind have removed the stomping grounds of the older generation, cutting off local opportunities for social interaction. Research suggests that growing numbers of older people are at risk of loneliness and social isolation. Therefore, as shrinking public budgets are squeezing the capacity of the statutory and voluntary sectors to reach out to isolated older people, there is clearly a gap to be filled.
The report we are publishing today, Ageing Sociably, finds that businesses could do a lot more to offset the loneliness and social isolation felt by many older people. There is not only a moral case for this but also a strong business case: older people are growing in financial clout as their numbers increase and the ‘golden market’ for entertainment, products and services is currently very poorly served.
Successful examples of business-led schemes that reduce loneliness in old age, identified through this research, include a McDonald’s in Barkingside that hosts weekly free tea and coffee mornings; an independent pharmacy that organises weekly ‘health walks’ for older men and women; and a Sainsbury’s store in Market Harborough that supports a local charity called the Dementia Café, which provides a sociable environment for people diagnosed with dementia and their friends and carers (Sainsbury’s staff fundraise for the Dementia Café and provide free refreshments, employee volunteers, prizes and business mentoring). The direct costs for these businesses are relatively small, but in each case they have a huge impact on the older people whom they are supporting to stay socially active and to meet new people.
However, while these examples are all hugely powerful in their own right, they are unfortunately relatively limited occurrences and in many cases the examples we identified were of ad hoc, one-off events or short-term projects, which were unlikely to have much impact in reducing the risk of loneliness for older people in the long-term.
Our research suggested that businesses which develop more sustained ways of working closely with their older customers stand to benefit in a variety of ways. Not least, this is a powerful opportunity for businesses to improve their social image at a time when the reputations of many large businesses have been eroded to an all time low by their poor corporate responsibility records - GlaxoSmithKline’s recent $3 billion fine and Barclays’ £290 million Libor-fixing fine being the most famous recent examples.
In addition to improving their social consciences, our report also found that it makes good financial sense for businesses to reach out to older people in their communities. Businesses that make the effort to create ‘age-friendly’ environments and support older people’s social participation stand to benefit from a better local reputation, increased knowledge of the local community, more motivated employees and – not least – the custom of future generations of older customers as they go into their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond.