Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Choir of a Hundred Hugs

Thank you Linking Voices for a musical treat and a smile which lasted me long after the enthusiastic applause died away- from now on I will always think of you as "the Choir of a Hundred Hugs".

Going along to the Exeter Phoenix on a dank and chilly Saturday in early December 2010, I wondered if there would be much of a turn out. Surely most people would be heavily involved in preparations for Christmas and far too busy to make time for a concert by a choir of potentially frail old folks run by something unglamorously entitled "Age Concern"?

How mistaken could I have been. By the time I managed to make it into the auditorium, more seating was being brought out and mutterings of "it'll be standing room only soon" could be heard. As I settled into my seat, notebook at the ready, I heard a voice behind me - "What's this, a Simply Red tribute band?!" Looking up I understood - a stage full of women wearing every shade of red, and even some in purple, jostled for space under the bright lights, joined by the smaller but always crucial male section, the men being slightly more soberly clad. The relaxed approach of the choir's leader, Vicky, allowed a friendly atmosphere to develop as seating problems were resolved and she prepared the singers for their first song; a tender rendition of "California Dreaming" which put a smile on my face lasting the rest of the afternoon and set the tone for a varied and most enjoyable concert, including plenty opportunity for audience participation. It didn't take much urging from Vicky before the Phoenix was humming with exciting vocal harmonies, not to mention Maori hand gestures.

Chatting with the singers afterwards, I experienced a full confirmation of my own experience of the multiple benefits to be had by anyone joining a community choir. Perhaps due to the particular "fifty plus" age range of the members of the Linking Voices choir, I heard several poignant stories  of how the restorative experience of joining the choir had not only brought them safely through periods of serious  sickness or bereavement, but also enriched  their lives with a sense of belonging to a new "family". One member graphically described how her friend had seemed "small and shrunken and fearful"when she first came along. The best description I can offer today is "sparkling with fun and confidence" as she tells me of the difference the Linking Voices choir has made to life and how she now sings in three different choirs.

When asked if she could say what she gets out of the choir, their smiling leader Vicky told me:
"I can’t stop singing, I’ve always been singing and it keeps me healthy and happy and connected to people - I see people who've been looking at the ground, singing very quietly - if they're daring to sing at all - having been told since childhood they couldn’t sing - and suddenly they're standing on a stage dressed in bright red, singing out, with no piano accompaniment, feeling powerful with their voices and really enjoying themselves. I just love to see people grow in confidence, to see them coming out of their shells and just growing - and just having a really good time. And it's a two way street for me - I’ve made lots of new friends and as for the hugs, with hugs on the way in and hugs on the way out, I get a hundred hugs a day!"

Thanks to Meg Compton for her review

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Cuts and Older People

After all the hype and speculation about the comprehensive spending review, the country now knows where George Osborne and the Coalition Government are planning to target cuts of £81 billion over the next four years. But what will the likely impact be for older people? Age UK, the new national body formed from the merger of Age Concern England and Help the Aged, has been lobbying government hard over the last weeks and months to protect the interests of older people, both financially, and in health and social care services. So what’s the damage? Actually, on the financial front remarkably little it seems, unless you’re in your early fifties and will have to work longer before you get your state retirement pension, or you still qualify for child benefit and are in the higher tax bracket.

Universal benefits, such as free prescriptions and eye tests for people over 60, free televison licences for those over 75 and the highly valued Winter Fuel Payment, have all been retained. Many had been concerned that the Winter Fuel Payment that pays £250 per household to people over 60, and £400 to those over 80, would be withdrawn. So the fact that it is continuing, for the time being at least, is a relief. Less positive, however, is the government’s announcement that it intends to phase out the Warm Front scheme, which provides help to make the homes of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society – many of whom will be older people dependent on Pension Credit – more energy efficient and therefore warmer and safer. The Governmant plans to reduce Warm Front’s current £280m per annum expenditure by more than half next year, before phasing the scheme out altogether in 2013. This is a real concern when one considers the large number of excess winter deaths that are still recorded each year.

It is vital, therefore, that older people check they are receiving everything to which they are entitled. If you are single and have a total income of less than £130 per week or a couple with less than £198 per week then you should check to see if you are entitled to pension credit. You can contact the pension service on 0800 99 1234 (have your NI number, details of income and savings and the account to which you want the payment to be made ready when you phone). Alternatively, you can contact Age Concern Exeter’s Information & Advice service, which runs Monday to Thursday, 10am to 1pm, on 01392 202092 with this or any other query.

Of course, as well as cuts, the chancellor also announced changes to the state pension age. A policy to change the state retirement age to 66 for both men and women has been accelerated, and will now come into force from April 2020 – six years earlier than originally planned. Women’s pension age will now increase more quickly between 2016 and 2018 to reach 65, before rising to 66 in 2020. The Government is also considering a timetable for future increases in state retirement age to 68 – goodness knows what our friends across the Channel would make of that!

The other announcement that will have a big impact on many older people is the cut of 28% to local councils. This is a huge reduction in expenditure for council’s to manage over four years, and will have a serious impact on local services. Many councils, Devon included, have been planning for a 25% reduction, so this is even worse than they feared. At a recent meeting, I heard Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council, say that if the cuts were in the order of 25%, then even if the council got rid of its 200 most highly paid staff and all its corporate services such as HR, IT, finance etc, it would still only save half the money required by Government. The consequence is that frontline services will inevitably be hit.

Devon County Council has responsibility for commissioning – that is paying for – social care services. Services that support the most vulnerable to live independently at home through a range of support, or, where that is not possible, by funding their long-term care where they do not have the finances to pay for it themselves. Of course, the majority of people who desperately need such support are older people and their carers. My plea to John Hart, the leader of Devon County Council, and Stuart Barker, the elected member responsible for social services, is to do all they can to protect social care funding.

We all know the demands for social care services are rising with an ageing population and an increase in the number of families coping with dementia. To remove funding from already over-stretched services could actually increase costs through older people ending up in hospital or long-term care sooner than would otherwise be the case, or carers being left unsupported and therefore unable to cope. The Council is obviously between a rock and a hard place, but protecting the most vulnerable must be their first duty. John Hart is currently asking for people’s views on how the Council should deal with the difficult decisions ahead. If you agree with me, that social care services should be protected in just the same way health services have been (they are two sides of the same coin, after all), then please let John Hart know your views. You can write to him at County Hall, Exeter, EX2 4QD, email him at or go to the Devon County Council website and completing the 5 minute ‘Tough Choices’ survey.  Vulnerable older people and their carers need our support.