Let’s not lock people out of contributing to their communities

As more communities across the UK enter new phases of lockdown, it is critical that people are able to support each other and remain connected through the tough winter ahead. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how much we value our communities – and that they need people of all ages and backgrounds to contribute through volunteering.

We know there is no lack of willingness to support one another. Earlier this year, more than 750,000 people registered to be NHS responders, thousands participated in mutual aid groups, and civil society organisations and local authorities were overwhelmed by people looking to help each other out. And yet many who had been volunteering for years – especially older adults and those deemed ‘vulnerable’ – were no longer able to participate. Many were ‘shielded’ or their activities stopped due to concern over their safety.

We must not let the mantra of vulnerability take hold and lock people out of helping each other. The pandemic has thrown many of the UK’s ingrained inequalities into stark relief – and ageism is no exception. This widespread and insidious problem is known to have many harmful effects on older adults – while research by the Centre for Ageing Better has identified that older adults who volunteer experience increases in the quantity and quality of their social connections, in their sense of purpose and self-esteem, and in their life satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing.

Nesta and the Centre for Ageing Better (both in partnership with DCMS) have, over recent years, worked with many organisations to develop and test age-inclusive and age-friendly approaches to volunteering. Based on these insights, Nesta believes three key action points should be prioritised to support the participation and involvement of older adults in the coming months – namely:

  • Always challenge ageism and stereotyping;
  • Work with your community to shape participation opportunities;
  • Put inclusivity at the heart of all community support decisions.

1. Always challenge ageism and stereotypes

Some of the narratives that have been forwarded during COVID-19 (such as ‘boomer remover’) are offensive, damaging and harmful. We should all work to combat this narrative and reframe the challenges we face, by sharing positive stories and realistic depictions of older adults responding to the challenges of coronavirus – whether that’s working on the frontline in paid employment, being active in the community, or caring for family and neighbours.

We need to make sure ageist stereotypes don’t play out in the day-to-day work of volunteer-involving organisations. In Nesta’s work to support more age-inclusive community contributions, we found the primary element that marked a difference between older adults' involvement and the contributions of other people was the prevalence of ageism.

Examples of organisations working to combat these stereotypes include the Compassionate Neighbours programme at St Christopher's Hospice in South East London, which provides time and companionship to people with a chronic, long-term or life-limiting illness, or who are older and experiencing loneliness or social isolation. The programme has seen Compassionate Neighbours in their 70s and 80s continuing to support other community members through the crisis, as well as supporting one another to master Zoom so they can join in with learning sessions. Meanwhile, the Age Friendly York programme has an Older People’s Advisory Group of over 100 members, who are using their experience to feed into important issues regarding infrastructure in the city, as well as supporting people to connect again during the pandemic.

2. Work with your community to shape participation opportunities

While COVID-19 has brought many challenges, it has also created an opportunity for organisations to engage people in new and different ways – and to use imagination and creativity to come up with new solutions together. When people are encouraged to share, whole waves of ideas are generated. Currently, lots of people’s skills and creativity are being left untapped.

It’s crucial to tackle the barriers that people face to getting involved – whether practical or emotional – and to be flexible with the opportunities that are on offer.

Projects that succeed at being age-inclusive do so by understanding what motivates people to get involved, what matters to them, and the kinds of activities they want to do. It’s crucial to tackle the barriers that people face to getting involved – whether practical or emotional – and to be flexible with the opportunities that are on offer. Indeed, recent polling by Nesta identified that having flexibility over when to help out is seen as the biggest factor in encouraging more people to get involved in their communities.

While the initial days of the pandemic necessitated a scramble to ensure people were safe and supported, we have since seen great examples of people creatively getting involved and supporting each other. Grandparents Plus, a nationwide kinship care organisation, has used the trust and connections built up over many years to develop a virtual support system using WhatsApp and online groups. By enabling people to connect, share and support each other, this has made a massive difference to kinship carers across the country. And throughout the crisis, B-Friend, an organisation tackling loneliness and isolation in communities, has run a ‘Bring Your Own Brew’ programme, with people who had previously met in-person initially calling each other to check-in on a weekly basis. The members then adapted this approach by visiting at the garden gate/front door to chat outdoors from a distance, while others in the group began making face masks.

Lots of organisations we have been working with are also looking at ways to support the supporters – helping those who are volunteering or helping others to also look after themselves. From wellbeing workshops to thank-yous, it’s important to show people that their contributions are valued. For example, The Reader, a nationwide organisation which runs shared reading groups, set up The Reader at Home to ensure all volunteers could still participate in their volunteering as well as provide support for one another.

3. Put inclusivity at the heart of all community support decisions

Although our work was focused on being age-inclusive, it has also highlighted the importance of addressing inclusivity across the board. No matter what age, gender, race or background, it is vital to allow everyone to have the opportunity to contribute their voice, skills and time to their communities to ensure better life experiences for everyone.

For example, The Cares Family’s aim is to bring older and younger neighbours together so everyone can feel part of this changing world, rather than left behind by it. Since COVID-19, it has adapted its model, moving online to allow neighbours to continue to safely connect (while ensuring all online socials could also be accessed by phone). This collaborative model – where neighbours young and old support one another – has enabled greater autonomy for those involved, drawing on people’s skills in hosting themed social clubs (recently, an older neighbour hosted her first gardening social club).

We all have a part to play

Today, Nesta is sharing a full review of our insights into the positive steps different organisations have taken to become more age-inclusive and age-friendly. The Centre for Ageing Better has also launched a practical guide for organisations working with volunteers on how to engage over-50s and widen participation among different types of people.

Encouraging greater inclusivity is a key pillar of the support our civil society urgently requires – so as part of a package of measures, Nesta is calling for a £50 million local voluntary response ‘booster fund’ to increase the capacity of local areas to support immediate voluntary responses to the pandemic.

Over the coming months, volunteer-involving organisations and communities will face tough circumstances. Let’s not lock people out of participating, connecting with one another and helping each other out during the crisis and beyond. We all have a part to play in shaping greater inclusion in our communities.

Our new report is The Age of Inclusion: Lessons from social action innovations developing age-inclusive and age-friendly practice.


Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Director of Government and Community Innovation

Carrie was Director of Government and Community Innovation at Nesta, leading our work on social action and people-powered public services.

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Annette Holman

Annette Holman

Annette Holman

Programme Manager, Government Innovation Team

Annette worked in the Government Innovation Team at Nesta focusing on social action priorities, specifically on the Connected Communites and Second Half Fund.

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