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How do we meet the growing needs of an ageing society? We all have an interest in this question (even if sometimes we also prefer to avoid thinking too hard about it) and over the last couple of years I've spoken to many RSA Fellows about their experiences of how acute it becomes when people close to you need care and support.

Some of those Fellows contributed to a report we produced recently for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on making decisions about care (my colleague Emma Lindley, who was one of the authors, neatly summarised its themes in a recent blog).

This week the JRF published another paper, Widening choices for older people with high support needs, which I heard about from the programme's director, Ilona Haslewood, at a recent event. Its theme is how people can help each other meet their needs as they age, but it also offers an interesting case for why social projects should empower people to help solve each other's problems, rather than doing it for them.

The report starts from the principle that the care of older people should not be a one-way street, based on agencies providing support to people who cannot meet their own needs. Instead, it argues that approaches based on mutuality and reciprocity – how people can do things together and help each other meet each other’s needs – allow older people to stay in their communities and make a contribution to them.

The report is clear that there is plenty of good practice out there, ranging from formal schemes such as Shared Lives, to informal arrangements such as peer support networks. However, what’s also clear is that rhetoric about helping people help each other can sometimes fall out of step with reality:

“Much is spoken and written about the centrality of mutualism to public service design and delivery, and the role of co-production in the transformation of social care and associated support. […] The reality on the ground for many older people with high support needs is very different.” (47)

The interesting question, then, is what makes alternatives to traditional care work. The report picks out a few success factors, and here are three that seem good general principles for any project that depends on reciprocal sharing of time and skills:


  • All parties involved need to recognise the mutual advantages as benefits of working together.

  • It needs to spell out the practical benefits of working together (for instance, participants helping each other overcome barriers and "life's obstacles")

  • It'll work best if is generated, designed, owned and led by those directly involved 

Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?

The report also lays out an interesting challenge for organisations like the RSA. It generously cites work that we, NESTA and others have done to encourage and support social enterprise – but asks, in effect, whether all the projects we support take the ‘social’ bit seriously enough. Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?

Put another way, the idea – the model or approach you take to solving a problem – cannot be everything. Working with RSA Fellows, we're keen to do everything we can to encourage good ideas to grow. Our Catalyst programme, for instance, provides funding and support to socially beneficial projects. What I'm left wondering about, though, is the subtler question of the kind of relationships and behaviours that need to develop (if the above principles are sound) for a good idea to survive in the long run – and to offer the greatest possible benefit, both direct and indirect, to people involved in it.

Returning to the earlier warning about rhetoric outpacing reality, it's not enough to pay lip-service to this ambition: what's needed is advice on how to make it work in practice. One way we can rise to the challenge is to share examples of projects that demonstrate genuine reciprocity where we find them. To that end, who out there is solving a problem by helping people solve it for themselves – and what can we learn from how they work?

Sam Thomas is the RSA's project engagement manager, responsible for improving how people engage with our programme of action and research. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.


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