Scotland’s town centres need to work for older people in rural communities too

Community development charity, Outside The Box is the lead partner of the Rural Wisdom project, which works to develop rural communities that are older-people-friendly, supported by The National Lottery Community Fund. It has piloted work in the areas of North Angus, Highland Perthshire and Eaglesham and will soon expand into Moray and The Scottish Borders. Outside The Box also runs the Food Buddies project, which develops practical help for people living with dementia.

Many of the users of Scotland’s town centres don’t live in town, but instead are visitors from the surrounding rural area. With the closure of rural banks and post offices, these are often older people, who come into town for shops and amenities. When we are thinking about how to improve our high streets, it’s important to make sure they work for people who live in these areas too.

A 2017 survey found that one in ten people in Scotland often feel lonely. Our town centres should be a place where people can come together as, for some people, a visit to the shops may be their only opportunity for social interaction. The current problems facing high streets give us a chance to rethink our town centres, but when we do so, we shouldn’t leave anyone behind.

As part of our work in rural communities, we spoke to older people right across Scotland who told us that they would rather visit local shops than rely on online retailers, but find that they are often not accessible. Below are some of the things that would make town centres more age-friendly.

Public transport is a huge issue for rural communities. So often, it doesn’t work for those that rely on it and this can contribute to social isolation. People chose to stay at home rather than suffer the hassle of multiple connections. Buses may take extremely long routes to cover what should be a short distance. Or they might serve people who want to go into a town or village, but not those who need to take transport to get around it.

Parking also needs to be considered. In Dumfries for example, older people told us that they were put off coming into town because car parking only allowed a two-hour stay. For older people, two hours may not be enough for what they want to do. This makes people who drive more likely to visit out-of-town retail outlets where they can park for the day for free.

There are other things that local authorities can do for people who are less mobile. Last year, in one of the areas where we work, older people successfully campaigned for the installation of a bench in a shopping centre. This simple and inexpensive solution can make all the difference to older people. Likewise, maintaining accessible public toilets is a key factor.

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There are an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. Businesses can work to ensure they are providing a dementia-friendly services. This includes: training staff that some customers may need more time or support to decide and explain what they want; placing all signs at eye level, making sure there is a good contrast between lettering and background; ensuring lighting is even. For more info, see our Handy Tips for Staff guide and Café Checklist.

Town centres should not just be about shopping, they should also be community hubs. In Brechin, we found that although there was lots of community activities and events for older people, not many people knew about them. People resent the expectation that everyone should find out about things online or via Facebook. Community newsletters and noticeboards can make a big difference. But so too can a central point that serves as a hub for local information and services, something we trialled in Brechin last year.

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Another common complaint we hear is that facilities such as village halls and other public spaces are too expensive to hire out. Community groups often don’t have funding or big budgets and prices can be prohibitively high, meaning that groups and activities are unable to continue. Local authorities could do more to subsidise these important local facilities.

As local facilities close and business buckle in the face of changing economic climate, there are less options for social interactions between different generations. Events that bring generations together can be beneficial for all ages, generate new conversations and ensure that older people’s voices are heard.

Older people want to be part of the conversation when it comes to improving town centres. Our population is aging, and town centres need to be age-friendly to match. However, this doesn’t just come down to facilities and provisions. If you see an older person struggling with bags or a heavy door, offer them a hand. If someone seems lost, see if you can help. Take the time to get to know a regular customer. You might be the only person they speak to that day. We can all play a part in improving Scotland’s towns and places for all.

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