To mark National Countryside Week, Age UK has called on national and local government to design and develop rural services that prevent loneliness in older age. This challenge to local authorities is based a new report and poll, which found one in four people aged over 60 who live in rural areas find lack of public transport the “biggest challenge”. Other obstacles to keeping connected in older age when living in the countryside including a lack of shops and difficulties in getting broadband access.
Rural services, from the traditionally council-organised care services to commercially run pubs and shops, can be closed because they cost more to run, or have a lower number of people using them. But as Age UK observe in their report, rural communities are ageing above the national average – so the specific needs of older people should be considered alongside the financial cost or users when the future of a venue, post office or bus route is under review.
This report adds to the work of other organisations that are also working to raise awareness of the challenges of rural isolation and loneliness. The ‘Over the Hill?’ campaign is lobbying politicians, service providers and government to make sure local rural services “live up to expectations” and provide older people with real choices for rural retirement.
New ways of approaching rural service design should also be championed. The Rural Coffee Caravan Project in Suffolk was established because it was felt quality of life for older people in Suffolk could be improved by better advice and information, and a bit of socialising. The project is a travelling mobile community cafe and information centre, based in a caravan, which tours rural Suffolk distributing information about benefits and services, and hosting coffee mornings at the same time. The Coffee Caravan also helps foster community spirit by bringing people together in a relaxed social atmosphere to just chat and get to know each other better.
Last year, the Commission for Rural Communities published recommendations for how social care, transport and housing services could be ‘rural-proofed’ and used to address the issue of social isolation in older age. These included:
- Paying volunteer coordinators who can ensure community transport and low-level support capacity in rural areas is maintained
- Fund the training of minibus drivers – a small investment that could lead to savings or expansion of existing charitable transport services
Speaking to the Telegraph, the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson MP said he was awareness of the issue of isolation in rural constituencies, such as his own. He in particular championed the roll-out of broadband to rural areas, saying it would make a “huge” difference to the lives of older people, particularly if they could access Skype.
There is still a long way to go if rural isolation and loneliness is to be properly addressed. But as these few case studies demonstrate, service providers and commissioners (such as health and wellbeing boards) can work together to “rural proof” valuable community services for the benefits of older residents.
Age UK’s Later Life in Rural England: www.ageuk.org.uk/rural
The Rural Coffee Caravan Information Project: http://www.ruralcoffeecaravan.org.uk/
‘Over the Hill?’: http://www.overthehillcampaign.org.uk/