Catriona Melville reflects on Age Scotland’s new report, ‘Keeping the Doors Open’.

Older people’s groups fulfil an incredibly important role in communities across Scotland. From lunch clubs and men’s sheds, to sporting clubs and older people’s forums, the range of activities these groups undertake are vast.

The impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their operations, finances, membership, and activities has been significant. These groups largely had to close their doors towards the end of March 2020 as we entered lockdown. Many found new ways to support their attendees and members during unprecedented circumstances.

In the two and a half years since, reopening has been slow and difficult for some. Sadly, more than 30 older people’s community groups in membership of Age Scotland have closed since the start of the pandemic – and we know many others are struggling.

In June 2022, Age Scotland surveyed our community member groups to identify the main challenges they are facing and find out more about their experiences over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost a quarter of Age Scotland community member groups completed the survey, which covered a range of topics, including attendance levels and whether these had changed since before the pandemic; whether groups and organisations had met or delivered services during this time; whether they are currently meeting or delivering services; and what challenges they face and how these could be resolved.

There were many positives, including the fact almost 90% of groups were currently meeting or providing activities and services. The range of ways groups stepped up during the crisis to continue to help support people in their communities was also clear.

However, the responses also shed light on the many challenges which groups are facing and how this will impact their futures. These include rising energy bills for premises, difficulties in securing core funding, operational and transport costs, drops in the number of members or service users, and a reduction in the number of volunteers and committee members. As each group’s circumstances are different, the overall picture was of a wide mix of concerns and priorities.

We also asked groups to share with us in their own words what they mean to the people that attend them and their local community.

The majority of responses mentioned the central role community groups and services for older people play in tackling loneliness and social isolation. Other answers included helping people to remain active, offering educational activities and learning, improving mental health, supporting people living with dementia and unpaid carers, and enabling older people to access information and signposting.

While the rich insights captured in this survey are likely to be familiar to those involved in older people’s groups, we hope the report underlines the importance of groups and how we must help them with the challenges they face.

Our report (this link will take you away from our website) calls for action from Scottish Government, local authorities, funders, politicians and others to help support them. Age Scotland will continue to engage with these audiences in our policy and influencing work to ensure that older people’s groups receive the support they need. Our findings make it clear that if we didn’t have them, we would need to invent older people’s community groups, and we will continue to press decision makers to ensure groups get all the support they need.

Please do read the report, share with your networks, and get in touch with Age Scotland if you’d like to discuss the findings.

You can read the report at www.age.scot/keepingthedoorsopen

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