Catering can play a part in remedying 'age-segregated UK'- Radish MD Rebecca Bridgement

Rebecca Bridgement
22/12/2017 - 07:00
Rebecca Bridgement, managing director of catering company, Radish, has issued the following recommendation on the role caterers can play in tackling loneliness amongst the elderly in the UK.

Bridging the age gap 

With the Christmas season comes the sad indictment that a lot of elderly people in the UK are chronically lonely. According to Age UK, over a million elderly people will spend Christmas day alone this year, and 4 million describe their television as their main source of company. In care homes specifically, 40% of residents are affected by depression. With loneliness, reportedly as harmful to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and doubling the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s - this is a public health issue, not just a social one. 

And as baby boomers get older, the situation is destined to get worse. With falling birth rates and lengthening lives, we’re now on the precipice of an extraordinary social crisis. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2050, for the first time ever, the over-65s will outnumber the under-fives. 

Ageing populations are common in developed countries, but there are aspects that are fairly unique to the UK. For example, there are far less intergenerational households - as the elderly, once they are no longer independent are traditionally placed in a care home. 

Playing catch-up

One-off visits to see elderly people in residential homes are not an unusual part of a nursery and school’s activities, yet, the UK is late to the party when establishing permanent and regular joint activities. 

In Singapore, £1.69 billion has been pledged to develop a national plan to co-locate childcare and senior centres to help Singaporeans age confidently, and the Singapore government has additionally encouraged innovative programmes that facilitate interaction between the old and young. Similarly, in the US co-location is far more common – ‘Intergenerational Learning Centres’ link nurseries with care homes, where children visit the residents daily to partake in joint activities such as music and cooking. 

Schemes such as these are common abroad. However, it took a Channel 4 documentary aired this summer called ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’ to prompt a discussion regarding breaking down the age silos that are so prominent in the UK. The case study was St. Monica’s care home just outside Bristol. Nursery children were invited to partake in all their usual educational activities on site for six weeks with the involvement of the elderly residents. The results were, predictably, heart-warming. Not only did the permanent residents at St Monica’s love having children sharing their space, which boosted morale, the children benefited from the attention they received which in turn improved their confidence and communication skills. 

The role caterers can play

Bridging the gap has evidently never been more important. So what role can the contract catering industry play? There are companies in the UK which run both care homes and nursery groups, but currently none are considering combing the two. The government is not best placed to solve this - any initiative that dictates how we live will often swiftly be notched-up as another win for the ‘nanny state’. However, small, grass-roots schemes set up by private sector companies could potentially play a big part in tackling the issue. 

Our catering company, Radish, is aiming to do just that. Making food that isn’t just a means to an end, but also a vessel for social value. With our brand promise, ‘creating a stir, adding zest, and serving smiles’, moving forward, we’re aiming to integrate social value projects into the day-to-day of our services. And, as one of few caterers that services both the education and assisted-living sectors, we are, perhaps, uniquely placed to help bridge the gap. We’re beginning to plan schemes that can link these two sectors. In the pipeline we have ‘Postcard Pen Pals’, a great opportunity to open a channel of communication between the primary schools and assisted living sites that we service. This is a start, but in future we are planning to roll this out more extensively. 

A survey conducted amongst care home residents revealed that meals were the third most valued aspect of the service – second only to personal care and security. Cooking, and the joy of good food, has cognitive, emotional and other health-related benefits. Not only is it a bonding experience, which for the elderly (and particularly those with Alzheimer’s disease) engages the senses of smell, touch, and taste. For children, cooking is a life skill, but can also boost cultural awareness and math’s skills. In future, I predict that we will witness the development of social programs to link the two in a more meaningful way.  

Even as we move into 2018, the UK remains one of the most age-segregated societies in the world. There is still so much that can be done to help remedy this issue, and catering can play its part in leading the way. 

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