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No neat lines in life

6 July 2012

A recent conference on the challenges – and opportunities – of an ageing population, brought into sharp focus for the me the fact that there are no neat lines to draw around where ‘services’ stop and where ‘social life, family and friends’ start. For example the relatively straight forward service of an older person’s medical check up, may also be reliant on a friend, neighbour or family member being available to transport person there and support follow up action like collecting prescriptions.

It is common sense that health and social care service providers need to build a partnership with their users to help them drive the design, and contribute to the delivery of the right and best services. Collaborative design of these services is essential for increasing independent living at home and enabling an older person to maintain social connections and a good sense of health and wellbeing. This is great on paper, but it’s not clear whether many organisations are actually managing this at the moment.

To get services right, health and social care provider need to learn lessons from the consumer sector – understand their audiences, get to know the rhythm and dynamics of their lives. Older people experience their help, support and ‘care’ as a range of things from visiting the dentist, to a weekly cup of tea with a friend, to being driven to the supermarket by their daughter. Which one of these is a ‘service’? Undoubtedly they all have value and contribute to health and wellbeing. Each one helps maintain that person’s independence at home.

The lines between formal and informal care are blurred and service providers and commissioners must understand this through really understanding older people lives. This issue affects virtually everyone directly or indirectly, so providers can’t afford to second guess or make wrong assumptions, they must take the time to conduct research that gives real insight into older people’s lives.

When Forster worked with Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) we used a community panel made up of a range of stakeholders including young people and parents to deliver understanding on the aspirations of young people in deprived areas. Investing time and money into this initial understanding ultimately delivered more robust campaigns that were positively received.

Another example of this can be seen with the current Age UK Hackney Forward Thinking Programme, which has engaged end users in both the initial design stages of the process, as well as a thorough testing phase.  A broader understanding of care in all its forms and guises, is essential for positive change.