Why the demise of Age UK Suffolk is a disaster for our county’s future
- Credit: Archant
The loss of any job, let alone any business or organisation, is a tragedy – particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, when more people are struggling.
Yet it is harder to think of a closure that could have more far-reaching consequences than the shocking collapse of Age UK Suffolk – given the nature of its brilliant work, and the particular challenges facing our county.
It is often said that the UK has a growing elderly population – but Suffolk already has one of the highest concentrations of older people of anywhere in the country.
On top of that, its elderly population is rising faster than anywhere else in the UK, with the number of over 65s set to grow by 45% over the next two decades.
That means that by 2037, one in three people in Suffolk will be aged over 65.
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Of course, it should be celebrated that we are living longer lives.
We also must be careful to avoid the lazy stereotypes about old age. More people are working into older age and contribute vast amounts in terms of their life skills and experience – and many really are fitter and healthier than their juniors.
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However, the immense health challenges a growing older population will pose in years to come cannot be ignored.
It is a stark reality that there will be more people with conditions like dementia and other problems, which - whatever pressures it puts on our health service – we have a duty to treat.
Yet perhaps at the root of it all is the way people can be left isolated as they reach older age.
When you have family and friends nearby, it’s easy to think that loneliness is something that could never happen to you.
Yet it only takes some close ones to move away, and suddenly you’re stuck in a remote, rural area with no-one to turn to.
Add mobility problems or dementia into that mix – not to mention a pandemic where you have to stay indoors for months – and you can suddenly be facing the very biggest challenges of your life, completely on your own.
Estimates suggest that 17,000 older people feel always or often lonely.
Age UK Suffolk’s work in supporting more than 8,000 people through various activities, such as befriending services, was therefore not only improving many people’s lives – it was, frankly, saving them.
If that sounds over-dramatic, it really isn’t.
Age UK Suffolk’s chief executive, Andrew Gardner, told me in an interview last year: “It is common knowledge that the effects of social isolation and loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
That, he said, is “because people don’t go out, they develop things like COPD and heart disease and it can speed up those health issues that as you get older are exacerbated”.
At the time, he told me: “The consequences of it are such that it will have a massive impact on services in the future, unless we act now and put services in place.
“This will kill more people than cancer or smoking.”
If you think that’s not going to affect you, think again. If you’re not in the over-65 age bracket yourself in the coming years, you will almost certainly have friends and loved ones who are.
As the older population rapidly grows, this was the very time we needed the fantastic services of Age UK Suffolk the most - not only to help deal with the effects of isolation, but be a voice speaking up for older people.
The charity’s demise, through absolutely no fault of its own, could not have come at a worse time for the older people in Suffolk who will need support in the years ahead.