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Having milk delivered to your door by a traditional milk man is just the ticket! When we moved to Winchester this was such a treat. Over time it became clear that supporting the milkman and their daily delivery was important so that this service was maintained for the many elderly people in the street. We have lived here for some 27 years and had a milkman all that time.

A few weeks ago we noticed that milk was no longer being delivered to our doorstep. During lockdown our milkman had been visiting at 1.30 in the morning and we had seen a few bottles go astray during the night. When no milk had been delivered for two weeks in a row, I emailed Milk and More [the company who took over our milk round] expressing concern that we hadn’t had any milk delivered. That was on the 7th of May.

On Monday, 17th May I received the following message:

“From the 26th of April we moved to online only and Delivery Drivers have been leaving leaflets regarding this since 24th March. I apologise if you did not receive these. If you wish to continue your deliveries with Milk and More please go to our website where you can register for an online account, set up your regular order and add a card to the payment details section.”

Illuminating! We were not aware of any leaflets being left with the milk or being put through our door. Call me old-fashioned but being able to leave a note out for your milkman at the same time as the empty bottles suited us perfectly. I felt in control and enjoyed knowing we could rely on the milkman, even ask for an extra pint if we needed one! Perfect.

That’s all gone.

I don’t know how many elderly people in the street are wondering what has happened to their milk delivery. They are not necessarily able to get online easily, if at all. For this to work, a relation or a carer would need to do it for them, making another chip in their hard-fought independence. In contrast, we can easily buy milk cheaper at the local supermarket and no longer risk milk going astray in the night!

This is a very simple example of what is going on all around us. As businesses shift to being data-driven in an attempt to cut their costs and increase their profit, at the same time they are disabling elderly and vulnerable people in their wake, forcing them to be more dependent on others whether they like it or not. I guess they may say they are trying to improve service, but this hasn’t been my experience.

I have a 93-year-old mum. She can’t deal with this! It’s beyond her experience. Instead, it’s another job for me; pension, utilities, phone, credit cards, adult services and indeed everything else – all online. My mum doesn’t even understand the technology of telephones where we are pressing 1 for this and 2 for that! By the time she gets to the end of the choices she has forgotten what the first choice was! Automated messages, tell me about them! She tries to have a conversation and gets very upset when the person on the end of the phone goes into repeat!

It’s the same trying to talk to a GP. I have to do it all for her. eConsult is beyond her reach (it makes my blood boil and I know what I am doing). It uses up my valuable time when my mum would be quite able to make a call herself. Ah, but then we are faced with options and a very long wait!

From my experience elderly people want to remain independent. We are taking away their confidence and useful things they could do to provide the self-care they need. This is the antithesis of voice as value.

We are piling pressure on carers to do it for them at what cost? The elderly person becomes more isolated, more dependent, less confident, not in control and uncertain because they feel less valued; they become the focus of negative attention.

It’s about time some of these companies and services sat down and listened to elderly people, not within a framework of meaning set by the companies and services themselves, but rather one in which the elderly person lives and breathes; where we can value their experience, show them we care and respond. They are part of the solution not the problem.

This would change the face of how services are provided, improve all our well-being and make the world a place where people connect to each other rather than simply being seen as a data processing exercise. Consultations, surveys and other tools tend to reinforce current practices rather than genuinely discovering an unmet need. There are thousands of people who are not part of this discussion. It is simply inaccessible. I can hear you say look at all the co-production and co-design going on. I respond by asking whose agenda is this and how is it framed? I think this is good practice but it’s the people ‘not in the room’ we need to think about.

Services and businesses seem to have forgotten there is usually a human at the end of the food chain, and it shouldn’t be that we are working around the needs of services and business to save costs. Some clearly want to provide a better service but to do this they are going to have to step out of their comfort zone. Tell me, are companies and institutions here to provide a service – whether commercial or public – or are we here to keep them in business? You would be forgiven for thinking the latter is often true.

We have been made to feel powerless to act. More of us need to demonstrate the issues we are experiencing. How long have you spent on the phone or online negotiating, trying to get to speak to a person who can help you? How often have you been asked to choose an option on the phone but the option you want isn’t there? How many people have you had to speak to before finding someone who is prepared to take responsibility for solving your problem? Maybe you just gave up? Complaining is so difficult and by this point you are exhausted. There’s an underlying assumption and I think we all know it; if this is the only way you can get it, you will comply with the framework of meaning in play.

But what happens when this doesn’t work? It took me twelve months to get DWP to listen to the facts of my mum’s case. She was given a back payment of £1,600. That’s a lot of money for someone on state pension. They haven’t even acknowledged my complaint yet! My time. Their staff are being paid to sort these things out, I am not! Just how much more efficient and effective would it be if they had got it right first time, for them, for my mum and for me!

The damage is already done. It’s crept up on us. There is a generation for whom ‘tech’ will always be inaccessible. I believe that companies and services should factor this into their planning rather than assuming someone else will do it for them. This would support elderly people to be self-reliant and reduce the pressure on carers who not only want to protect their loved one’s independence but also have more time to spend on caring rather than admin.

This all started with a milkman doing their daily rounds. All the elderly person wanted was a bottle of milk delivered to their door, perhaps a chat with someone who had become a friendly face. ‘Milk and More’ have streamlined their service, reduced their costs and in the process, unwittingly (or not) made the service inaccessible directly to some elderly people, making them more dependent on those around them. I am certain that this was never their intention, but the unintended consequences of this and other comparative changes in society means marginalising people who simply want to participate as best they can, for as long as they can.

Margo Horsley


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