Reimagining ageing: how social enterprise can help us grow old well

Anna Markland

Pioneers Lead

17th September 2018



“An unsustainable burden.” “A workforce crisis.” “A national disgrace.” “An epidemic of loneliness.”

These are the kind of terms we use when talking about the UK’s ageing population. Indeed, the statistics and related challenges – disempowerment, living longer with reduced mobility and a multitude of health conditions, burnt out of carers, and financial insecurity – are well known.

What if instead we saw this demographic change as an opportunity?

We believe social entrepreneurs are a key untapped resource with the power to transform our experiences of ageing. This article explores the unique benefits these entrepreneurs bring, the challenges they face, and UnLtd’s new offer of support & finance to help them increase their impact.

What would it look like if we all enjoyed five more years of healthy, independent and active lives?

This was what Theresa May committed to making happen by 2035. But what would that mean? Whilst life expectancy is a straightforward thing to measure, quality of life and our expectations and experiences of ageing are much more subjective.

At UnLtd, we want this experience to entail:

  • Feeling connected – participating in choirs and technology workshops organised via the Cares Family, a group of intergenerational community networks bringing together young professionals with their elderly neighbours.
  • Having good physical and mental health – attending an arts session run by Make It Better who harness creativity to lift your mood and give you something to concentrate on beyond your medical condition.
  • Maintaining independence for as long as possible – being helped by MySupportBroker , a social venture who deliver Personal Health & Social Care budgets, to have choices and take control so you can decide to join a local cycling club instead of going for weekly clinic base physiotherapy.
  • Taking care of carers – receiving friendly advice and emotional support by visiting the Moments Café run by Memory Matters, a CIC turning around the lives of people dealing with dementia and memory loss.

Why are social entrepreneurs well placed to deliver on this vision?

Established systems around ageing are failing, fragmented, and do not match user needs.

Health and social care providers are making changes, but this can take a long time and their solutions aren’t always innovative or centred around individuals.

This is why UnLtd are excited by the potential of social entrepreneurs in this space; we see that they bring something special to the table. The below chart shows their unique strengths, which are already transforming how this vision can be implemented.

This image contains four columns describing the strengths of social entrepreneurs: lived experience, holistic outlook, inclusive practice, and positive framing.


Why are these entrepreneurs struggling to scale?

Despite the promise that social businesses hold, they also face distinct barriers.

Through programmes such as Transform Ageing (live now in the South West) and Solutions for an Ageing Society, we have supported over 100 entrepreneurs to launch and build their ideas.

This has given us insight into the specifics of scaling in the ageing market.

Negative perceptions of ageing mean the consumer market is still under-developed. Though these biases are being challenged by social entrepreneurs, like Dementia Adventure, currently consumer demand for products and services is largely untapped.

This leaves most ventures trying to navigate the complex world of government commissioning.

“Without the deep health and social care sector expertise we have in MySupportBroker, the commissioning process would be dark and impenetrable”, says Sinead Brophy, Founder & CEO. Not only can this process be confusing, there is the added difficulty – Sinead goes on – that the “average length of the sales cycle is much longer than you would expect so businesses need good cashflow”. This is a luxury small enterprises can’t always afford.

On the investment side, “there is limited investor interest in the space given it is an unproven market at scale … mainstream investment is focusing on the most affluent consumers or low-cost tech-led platforms” concluded the Big Society Capital’s 2018 social investment strategy for the ageing sector.

Social investors have to date not organised around ageing as a priority area, with no clear mandate to act.

Ventures may also have struggled to attract impact investment because the outcomes they want to achieve are hard to define and measure (compared with, say, reducing reoffending or getting someone into employment). Benefits also are likely to be spread across multiple stakeholders, creating challenging business models.

Finally, there is an issue around workforce, given the sectors reliance on (often unpaid and unrecognised) carers, making it hard for social businesses to attract the talent they need. The fact that social entrepreneurs hold themselves to higher employment standards (eg a living wage, no zero hours contracts) can make it hard to compete with private business.

Within the system, the staff in care homes and the NHS are so stretched that they struggle to find time to engage with social entrepreneurs properly.

How are UnLtd enabling them to reach their potential?

We know that with the right guidance and access to finance, social businesses can increase their impact. That is why we are launching Thrive: Solutions for an Ageing Society , an accelerator that combines six months of bespoke support with the opportunity to secure investment of up to £50,000. Applications are open until 28 September.

Having started as North London Cares in 2011, the Cares Family went on a similar accelerator with us. They now operate four local branches and have inspired similar operations, such as Doncaster’s b:Friend. “UnLtd has helped so many people with big ideas to improve their communities,” says Alex Smith, their Founder. “They've been a constant in [our] development over seven years.”

If you’re keen to talk to UnLtd about our vision for quality living in later life or know of a venture who could benefit from our support, please get in touch with

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