The small society

Dorothy Runnicles

Dorothy Runnicles

I met the redoubtable Dorothy Runnicles at a conference a couple of months ago and have just read the report she published in February this year on voluntary groups run by and for older people. Her findings are encouraging – suggesting that there is far more community involvement than anyone officially knows anything about – but also concerning.

Runnicles is 86 and a campaigner for the greater involvement of older people in decision-making. As a member of Cambridgeshire Older People’s Reference Group, COPRG, an umbrella body for community groups across the county, she was involved in a year-long study of the role that these community groups (some of which are intergenerational) play in older people’s lives.

Her report suggests that untold thousands of local groups are operating under the radar of social services or the Charity Commission. Statutory and non-statutory bodies, she writes, are ‘failing to pick up huge numbers of small, dynamic, informal groups,’ that contribute to the well-being and quality of life of older people.

So the good news is that we aren’t living in an atomised society of competitive individualists in which neighbours are shunned. The not so good news, at least if you are trying to create a big society which works for everyone, is that a great many of these groups are specific to their locality.

One of the key findings of Runnicles’ report was how diverse groups were, reflecting a very wide range of interests. COPRG divided the 260 groups it studied in detail into three: those based around a locality; those linked to a faith group or a church; and those brought together by a shared interest, like caring or Alzheimer’s. The organizations in the first category often began as a spontaneous response to a specific issue, such as cuts in public transport, though their remit may have since grown considerably. They don’t seem, in other words, to be something you can simply pick up and plonk down somewhere else; their vitality derives from their organic, local quality.

Runnicles’ report is called Unsung Heroes in a Changing Climate, and it argues that in a time of increased pressure on public finances, it would pay policy makers to give greater voice to these groups. Ageism and prejudice, it implies, are among the main reasons why no one takes much notice of them. Many community groups are run by people aged 66-86 and over, and many of their members would be regarded as less than fully fit.

Nearly 10 years ago, the New Economics Foundation published a report arguing that there were thousands of what it called ‘micro social enterprises’ in Britain that were ‘unstudied and undervalued.’ Despite all the interest in social capital and user-led services and participation that there has been since – not to mention the current stir about the big society – it seems that, as ever, community groups run by and for older people continue to be seen as marginal.


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A word about words

A photograph of the word 'Old' on a wall‘Older people’, the subject matter of this website, has a euphemistic ring. It sounds weaselly. Older than what, or whom? Babies? Toddlers? Teenagers? It’s a phrase that reminds me of the old Jonathan Miller joke: ‘In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.’ It prevaricates and quibbles and refuses to come out and say what it means, leaving open the option that it could be referring to a group who are older than, say, a class of 10 year-olds.

The relative term has grown in popularity because the absolute one – old – is so loaded with cultural baggage. ‘Old’ is used so often as a synonym for bad that we’ve stopped noticing. It conjures images of ‘tired’ or ‘finished’ or ‘obsolete.’ This is also true of its satellite words: think of ‘sunset industries’, or ‘ageing infrastructure’ or conversely, ‘young cities’. (I was tempted to write ‘vibrant young cities’ there, because that’s the near-automatic second adjective). Words that began simply as chronological designations, open to all sorts of evaluative layerings, have become rusted over with self-loathing notions of decline and decay.

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What’s the point of digital inclusion?

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