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People are going to turn to us and expect us to be there for them - Age UK

By Harriet Whitehead

Age UK's mission of reaching isolated older people has never been more important, according to its chief executive Steph Harland.

Clearly this year has brought new challenges, but also opportunities, when it comes to staying connected. But she believes Age UK, and other charities, have stepped up and delivered during the pandemic, which she hopes won't be forgotten once the crisis is over.   

“I think Age UK is a phenomenal organisation. We've faced lots of change. Our mission is incredibly important, more than ever. There are huge issues confronting older people in our country and around the world,” she explains. 

Our ambition has transformed over 40 years 

Harland became chief executive of Age UK in January 2018, having previously been deputy chief executive at the charity. 

A key theme in her career has been working with older people and other adults with care needs. After leaving school, she spent time volunteering in long-stay psychiatric hospitals where there were a lot of people with dementia, or who had had long-term mental health problems.

Here she witnessed people living “in conditions that we now would not see in this country, often in very large mixed-sex wards” which she found “very shocking”. 

“I was quite young and it was a very rude awakening for me,” she says.  “It was something that, in one way or another, I wanted to spend time in my life addressing,” she says.

She adds: “These long-stay hospitals went a long time ago, I'm pleased to say, although the community care that we thought would come afterward has not entirely materialised.”

According to Harland one of the “most positive developments” of the last 30 or 40 years “is that our ambition for what care can be like for older people has transformed since those times”. 

Harland says: “Lots of older people in this country today are living interesting and diverse lives. They're huge contributors to our society and to our economy. They volunteer, they look after kids, they are active in lots of spheres that are interesting to them. They are advocates for causes that they care about. They are huge assets to their communities.”

Addressing inequalities 

When Harland became chief executive, she did a “stocktake” with her trustees about the role of Age UK going forward. 

She says: “One of the things we have to recognise is that we are facing a situation fairly soon when one in four people in our population will be an older person, by 2030. And we have to ask ourselves, who are we really here for, and what is it most important that we do?” 

“When we look at older people in this country, there are significant inequalities between people who are doing the best, and those people who are doing the worst,” she adds.

Age UK is a federated structure and works with many local charities, but a lot of the ways in which those organisations were originally funded have “been gradually disappearing over time”.

“So there are some really important questions about the future of that vital network. And one of the things that we were most keen to focus on is how to secure the future for that fantastic work going on in communities across the country,” she says.

“Before Covid-19, I was very pleased with how things were going in the organisation,” she says, adding that the charity was “making good progress” on its goals.

The impact of Covid-19

When Covid-19 hit, Harland says she immediately thought “people are going to turn to us and expect us to be there for them”. 

“They know who we are, they know where we are, and they're going to expect us to help them. So, we better get on and make sure that we do that,” she says.

The immediate focus was on how to best support people. That is, “what are the things that people are going to need, and how do we step up at this really important time”. 

She adds: “We've got a fairly simple view, which is we needed to put older people first. And the important thing was not to get so distracted by the financial challenges that the organisation faced, that we forgot to focus on the most important thing.”

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