Greater Manchester Humanist Group meeting report. 10th September. Jon Taylor, of Age Concern, Manchester.

Jon Taylor often gets invited to talk to groups and societies about the work he does as director of Age Concern Manchester. Many of these are church based societies. This was the first time he can recall being invited to a purely secular group.

Age Concern are dedicated to the care of the elderly in the community. As a movement they grew out of old peoplesí welfare societies which had their roots in the Poor Law reforms. The Oxford Movement were very influential in the development of Age Concern.

After World War Two, as British Society picked up the pieces, the elderly were left with little or no support. Welfare committees were established, and worked alongside the Social Services to provide what scant assistance there was to provide.

Age Concern, we were surprised to hear, has no official national headquarters. Its 1,400 groups operate quite independently of one another, as a federation of societies, (not unlike the relationship between various British local Humanist groups in fact). Manchester Age Concern is one of the largest, with up to 140 volunteers working for them. They serve a potential 78,000 people aged over sixty in Manchester. (Though not all of the elderly need their services). There is an organisation called Age Concern England, serving as a charity raising support group which can provide support and field officers for all the groups, but Age Concern England is not a headquarters organisation.

Though dependent to some extent on charitable donations, Age Concern Manchester gets much of its funding from the government in the form of social service contracts, of up to £1 and half million per year.

Age Concern run three major day care centres for the elderly in Manchester, (north, Central and South Manchester). They provide assistance and shelter for the elderly who suffer from mental frailty, mild dementia, and more serious psychological disturbances, as well as people with physical disabilities. Age Concern Manchester also run a Vietnamese Luncheon Club for elderly members of North Manchesterís Vietnamese community. They believe that stimulating activity is the key to providing the elderly with a better quality of life. The more an elderly person thinks, the stronger his/her mind will be. Reminiscence work is a key area in dealing with the elderly, who are encouraged to relate their life experiences and memories. This often brings out a lot of strong, emotional and even traumatic memories that have been bottled up, and held back, which can be very therapeutic to have brought out into the open. Age Concern organise day trips, and provide care for people in their own homes. They also provide a great deal of advocacy and representational work for elderly people dealing with courts, benefit agencies, gas and electricity representatives, and people to whom they are in debt. Counselling is an important area of activity, especially in dealing with the elderly members of ethnic minority groups. Age Concern also sell insurance policies to the over 55ís. I have spare copies of their information pack listing all their excellent services, if anyone wishes to take one.

Jon Taylor was highly critical of the appalling legacy left by the Thatcher government administration, that declared that there is no longer a social community; and that we are now just at the mercy of family and friends. The Tories were criticised for selling out one the central foundation stone policy that defines what Conservatism is, when they declared that property is no longer sacrosanct. Old people now often find themselves having to sell their homes and other property to fund their health care and residence in old folks homes. The impact of this hateful and widely held belief has left many people finding no love, tenderness or friendship as everyone tries to look after their own needs. The elderly have suffered particularly badly from such a philosophy.

People live longer now than ever before, and old people are statistically wealthier than ever before if we take the figures in proportion to the statistics of preceding centuries. There are still many problem areas, and a great deal of poverty, malnutrition, etc to be dealt with.

Bed-blocking was one of Jonís more controversial topics of concern. Up to forty-nine Manchester hospital beds are blocked, in being used by people who are not strictly speaking, ill enough to have to use them. They are often given these beds because the social services cannot afford to provide care workers able to look after these people at home, or through other means.

Age Concern provide much support for the bereaved. Jon recognised that a bereavement triggers much more than concern over the person who has died, and the sorrows that come immediately from death. The bereavement often opens up intense reflection on the whole value and worth of life, and opens up many other problems and concerns as well.

For clients, most Age Concern services are free, but with an over stretched volunteer force to do the work, there is often a limit to how long a client can be served. Bereavement support is often along, ongoing process that takes tremendous time and commitment.

The title, Age Concern, was criticised by some of our members for its ambiguity. ĎConcerní for all the needy rather than exclusively for the elderly was one challenge made. Jon observed that their was no strict cut off age below which you are considered too young for Age Concernís services. He mentioned one dementia sufferer in his twenties who they help. They will talk to anyone who calls on their offices for support, and will put people in touch with other support groups and agencies if they feel they can find more appropriate assistance there, but no one is ever turned down or ignored. Age Concern are not to be confused with Help The Aged, which deals more directly with charity and money for the elderly, and also works internationally. Age Concern is exclusive to the U.K, and lobbies Parliament to influence policies affecting the elderly.

The balance between business, charity work, and political advocacy is one Jon Taylor is unhappy with. Like many care workers and people volunteering to help in any worthy cause, he finds the paperwork, the need to play the economic market, and bureaucratic restraints and contractual restrictions on his work extremely binding. He feels torn between the devil and the deep blue sea. Charity support alone could never finance Age Concernís effective and wide range of services, while funding that comes from taxpayers money does have an impact on the economy and on the individual pocket. On the whole I am happier with my tax going to Age Concern rather than to any military project. It seems money well spent.

The 1970ís picture was that Volunteer workers were often more highly motivated than salaried workers, as without an income to give them an incentive to do the job, they commit themselves to the work from sheer enthusiasm for the cause itself. By the 1990ís the picture has changed slightly; as much of the initial enthusiasm and idealism has been dampened, but the commitment remains strong. Much of Age Concernís work is contractual. Many of their workers have statutory duties to perform. If Age Concern wish to embark on a project, they submit their proposals to the authorities, who award a carefully budgeted contract or not, as the case may be. It is rather like appealing to Camelot for lottery grant support, with which Age Concern Manchester have had little success.

Some members felt that charity workers and volunteers are used as an alternative to the government providing a commitment to serve the needs of the community.

Much welfare that comes from Charity could come from taxation. There should be a minimum pension, and a minimum standard of heating, and draft insulation in all homes. We often do not gain the full benefit of our National Insurance contributions. The Age Concern Age Discrimination Unit aim to encourage people who are able and willing, in active work of some kind. They have achieved a great deal in encouraging the elderly to give talks and reminiscences to schools and colleges.

Some members wondered if Age Concern might not benefit from stronger national co-ordination, rather than federal association, but Age Concern Manchester enjoys its independence and its ability to serve the unique needs of some sectors of the community, such as the Vietnamese Community project.

This was a thoughtful, effective talk on the problems faced by the elderly in Manchester and the financial and political minefield faced by those dedicated workers and volunteers trying to help them. Jon began his talk by asking us what any particular Humanist perspective on the care of the elderly would advocate. Sadly, in responding to his own observations, we failed to address that important question properly. We should now give serious thought to this issue. If you have suggestions, do let us see them, or/and forward your responses directly to Age Concern Manchester. Their main branch office in The Corn Exchange was destroyed by the IRA bomb blast on the city centre last year. Age Concern are now based at 77, Lever Street, Manchester, M1 1FL. Phone 0161-236-3339. Fax 0161- 236-2968.

Arthur Chappell