Zewditu Gebreyohanes graduated from King’s College London this year, and currently works as a graduate research intern at Policy Exchange.
Imagine that you are eighty years old. It is a bright, sunny morning but you are sitting by the window in your armchair, watching enviously as everyone else goes about their daily lives: mothers chatting to one another, children laughing playfully, and the neighbour striding purposefully to work.
You want to join them; you yearn to go out, to socialise and to be an engaged member of the community but somehow you feel your time has passed.
Although many elderly people in the UK are positively and actively engaged in their communities in a variety of ways, loneliness affects a significant and growing proportion, with over two million of those aged 75 and above living, according to Age UK, in relative social isolation.
It is in order to address this emerging crisis that I proposed – in my recent pitch for the Conservative Policy Forum’s ‘Policy Pitch’ finals at the online Conservative Party Conference – that the Government introduce a nationwide scheme whereby elderly people are given the chance to volunteer in local primary schools, helping to organise and run projects such as gardening, knitting, singing, drawing, acting or storytelling. Almost everyone has at least one hobby about which they are passionate and which they could share with an interested audience, especially of eager and receptive young children.
Of course, there are unsung heroes who have been volunteering in this way for many years but, if this were organised and coordinated by the Government as a formal scheme, it could have a much wider reach.
The benefits that such a scheme could yield are manifold. Foremost amongst these is that the volunteers would have a meaningful and rewarding occupation which would boost their wellbeing.
The opportunity to meet people on a daily basis and to form relationships would be invaluable: studies have proven that greater social interaction can prevent the onset of illnesses such as depression, dementia, and indeed cardiovascular disease, with the latter being due to the higher levels of exercise. This would reduce the burden on the currently strained NHS and other elderly care services.
Another benefit would be to the schools, as the volunteers could play a supportive role in the classroom, not just in terms of helping with supervision, but also imparting advice and encouragement to teachers. Crucially, the scheme would not incur any additional cost to schools or to local authorities, save perhaps for lunch and bus expenses, meaning that any school, irrespective of its financial circumstance, would be able to draw on support from the pool of volunteers should it wish to do so.
Needless to say, schoolchildren would be huge beneficiaries of such a scheme. In the first place, it would open up new opportunities to the children which may not otherwise have been available to them, enabling their academic and extracurricular development to be fuller and more rounded. Moreover, as citizens who have served society for decades and have a wealth of life experience and wisdom, elderly people are excellent role models for young children; engaging in regular intergenerational interaction from a young age could help make the pupils more worldly, mature, and sociable, all of which are qualities they will need to succeed in life.
Yet arguably the most important impact of such a scheme would be that it would inculcate within young people a desire to give back to society themselves when they are older. Seeing elderly people volunteer their time to help them would doubtless instil within the children a sense of civic duty and would encourage them to respect and to celebrate older citizens: something that is critical today, as age-based discrimination appears to have become more widespread in society.
This would foster a stronger community spirit and is of paramount importance in ensuring the long-term security of the elderly.
Nor should the various advantages that such a scheme could bring to the wider community be overlooked. For instance, local economies would doubtless be boosted, as if more elderly people are able to feel that they are valued members of their communities, they will be more likely to go out and spend, helping small local businesses and high streets.
Of course, with the ongoing global pandemic and the greater susceptibility of the elderly to the virus, it is unlikely that this scheme could be rolled out in the near future. Nonetheless, once normality returns, it is something that, if coordinated effectively, could benefit the nation.
Imagine that you are eighty years old. It is a bright, sunny morning and you are getting ready, dressing for work just like everyone else. You are excited about the day ahead: today the pupils will be performing the play to the entire school. You had sat with them to help them learn their lines, design the set, and make the costumes. It will be lovely to see the children’s happy faces and to hear the appreciation of the teachers and parents, as the whole production finally comes together.
You have made a difference to the children’s lives, but what a difference they have made to yours.
The policy set out above won the Conservative Policy Forum’s ‘Policy Pitch’ competition—the finals of which were held as part of the Conservative Party Conference in October 2020.