Interview with Ruth Marks

With the decision to appoint a Commissioner for Age Discrimination in Australia, it is timely to consider how similar roles are working in other countries.

In 1997 the vote for devolution from England was passed in Wales. In 2008 the Welsh Assembly appointed a Commissioner for Older People. It was the first time anywhere in the world that an independent champion was appointed to specifically promote and safeguard the interests of older people. Ruth Marks MBE fills this position, and has chosen to subtly rename her role, Older People’s Commissioner for Wale , to reinforce the primary aim – to listen to older people and represent their voices. In April this year, I interviewed Ruth about the establishment of the position of Commissioner, the situation of older people in Wales and the challenges ahead. Here is an edited version of her responses.

Who has authority for what, when it comes to older people in Wales? Westminster?

The UK government retains overall control of issues relating to finance and tax.
The Welsh Assembly has responsibility for devolved subjects which include health, social care, education training and local transport.
There are 22 local authorities (councils) and, until 18 months ago, there were 22 local health trusts.
Now there are seven local health trusts.
Over various times there has been debate to also reduce the number of councils, as with health boards, but instead of full-blown reorganisation we are seeing two, three, four or five councils working with one local health board.

What is the economic situation of older citizens in Wales?
From an economic viewpoint some regions of Wales are designated as some of the poorest in the whole of the UK and receive economic grants from the EU, even though the UK generally is considered one of the wealthiest nations. In fact, some regions and communities in Wales are on a par with some of the poorest regions of Europe including parts of Turkey, Italy, Portugal and some former Eastern Bloc countries.

Why is this so?
Wales has a legacy of heavy industries, particularly steel and coal, which are no longer operating.
Its older people also have a legacy of poor health, and high incidence of disability, with life-limiting conditions pertaining to:

• Lung conditions and heart disease
• Smoking
• Poor diet
• Poor wages
• Poor quality housing

Is there a state pension system in Wales?
There is a UK government state entitlement which means those who are fully retired will receive a basic state pension, which, until now, has been available at age 60 for women and 65 for men. This age is increasing and new legislation means the default retirement age is being taken away. The basic pension comes with extra entitlements called pension credits and is assessed on income and assets. Approximately 53% of retired pensioners in Wales have only a state pension for income – no occupational pension (or super as Australians understand it). Pensioners in Wales are some of the poorest in Europe.

What are the key issues for older Welsh men and women?
Older people tell us they are confused and anxious and this can lead to being angry as they do not know, cannot find out, and/or find it difficult to calculate what life will cost in future.
In particular the over 75s have been saving, not living on credit and not getting into debt. The sort of questions they are asking include:

• Paying for care – how much might I need?
• Will I have to sell my house?
• Will I be able to leave anything in an inheritance?

What does the future look like from an expected health, social welfare, financial perspective is the burning issue.

How do older people seek answers?
The number going online to research such questions is increasing, as are the number of government agencies which only offer information online. This can be a great source of frustration. People often prefer to talk to individuals and the Department for Work & Pensions does have ‘humans’ who talk and sometimes make personal home visits.
There are also good partnerships between government and charities and NGOs to guide people through hard copy applications and eligibility checks. In fact the department has an internal ‘tell us once’ system to cut red tape and endeavour to receive one report from individuals rather than making them repeat claims to whichever staffer happens to pick up the phone next.

So what is the big picture from a Welsh perspective?
The joy is that we are starting to celebrate longer, healthier lives rather than treating longevity as a ‘grey tsunami’ or referring to the ‘burden of older people’.
The fastest changing and therefore most challenging or demanding issue is there forming of our society’s attitudes to life course planning. What should be our individual responses, our government responses and our national responses?
In terms of the current cohort aged 65+, the common thread is the comment: ‘I have worked hard all my life and saved hard; it is not fair to pay for what I thought I was entitled to.’
The real challenge is for all age groups as they consider getting older is to understand that how things were for their grandparents may not be what they want. Many will say, ‘I want more choice and more control.’ And they will have to realise that this is not totally the role of the state – they, too, will need to play a part. Getting everyone together for this dialogue is the big test. Perhaps we need a ‘responsibilities’ map? In plain language. As one of our people, Nancy, often says, ‘Why can’t they write it like they say it?’
And this feeds back into our constant message, that we may be discussing our todays, but it’s for all our tomorrows.
The single most important thing is to engage with older people to learn about their experiences in order to inform future policy.