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Melksham to lead the way with ‘age-friendly’ vision

A GROUP of local people, led by seniors, aims to make Melksham one of the first small towns in the world to achieve “age friendly” status – with people of all ages reaping the benefits.

New chair of the Melksham Age Friendly Project, Tony Watts OBE, has set out the journey on which the town is set to embark.

“Recently, some researchers had the bright idea of designing and then donning special clothing, gloves and glasses to simulate how many people in their 70s feel when tackling everyday tasks.

“With their new perspective, researchers could now see how challenging it can be to navigate a crowded pavement with broken paving stones, climb stairs, cross a busy road… and so on.

“No, not every older person has poor eyesight, arthritic fingers or dodgy knees… but enough do, and to such an extent, that they can feel excluded from the activities most of us take for granted.

“Added to this, even the prospect of a trip to the shops, let alone a day out, can be daunting for those who require the reassurance of a toilet close by, or need regular sit downs. Poor housing design can make it impossible or too expensive to adapt one’s home – leading to falls and forcing people into care. Poor town planning and transport links can result in older people not being able to socialise or even shop.

“All too often, the end result is social exclusion and increasing dependence. And, of course, when you start going out or doing less, the harder it becomes to do them again.

What’s the answer?

“Is there a solution? Well apart from an anti-ageing elixir, still to be patented, the best approach is good design and thoughtful planning, summed up in the principles of “age friendly communities”.

“It leads to fewer falls, greater wellbeing, lower health and care costs and less isolation. Critically, it allows everyone in a community to be a full participant – contributing their skills, energy and wisdom.

“Yes, there are some upfront costs involved – but nowhere near as much as the sums saved by public services. Shops and businesses benefit too; communities become more integrated and harmonious. Moreover, there are various “pots” of money available to drive the agenda forward.

“Another plus point is that it’s not just older people who benefit; mums with young children need seats in shopping centres and decent public toilets too. A teenager in a wheelchair needs easy access onto a bus just as much as a pensioner. That’s why the expression “all-age friendly” is often used to describe what’s going on. Critically, it will need people from all generations working together to make this happen.

So how does Melksham fit into this?

“There’s lots going in this arena internationally, promoted by the World Health Organisation who recognise the benefits to a community’s overall wellbeing. Manchester is the UK’s best example at present, with Bristol working hard on the principles too.

“Whereas the original focus was on cities, it is now filtering down. Melksham is now looking to become a template for smaller communities nationally.

“A gathering in August, led by the Melksham & District 55+ Forum, saw 100 people pack into the Town Hall to listen to speakers explaining what was involved, leading to unanimous support for the concept. The gathering included representatives from all the relevant local authorities that will need to be on board to make this happen. A smaller working group assembled late in September to agree the next steps.

What next?

“An age friendly community is one where ALL older people:

1. have opportunities to enjoy life and feel well;

2. participate in society and feel valued for their contribution;

3. have enough money to live well;

4. feel safe, comfortable and secure in their home;

5. have access to quality health and care.

“That’s a big agenda and Rome wasn’t built in a day, but experience shows that improvements are best achieved in steps. One quick “win” already identified is to audit existing community assets – groups, organisations and local resources – that can act as a platform for the future.  Then we need to ensure that everyone locally knows what support is already out there for those who may feel isolated, or struggling financially, to make the most of their lives.

“Following that, a series of smaller sub-groups will be formed, covering themes such as transport, housing, the outdoor environment, health & wellbeing, shops, employment and intergenerational working.

“When we have identified what is currently working well – and what can be improved – the town can apply to the appropriate organisations to fund changes… but significant change can also be brought about by small shifts in attitude and priorities.

“Over the coming weeks and months we’ll keep you updated on progress – and tell you how you can become involved. Age should never be a barrier to someone playing a full and fulfilling role in their community. An “all-age friendly” Melksham will achieve that vision for all of its citizens.”

Above: Tony Watts the new independent chair of Melksham Age Friendly Project