PUBLIC service cuts are hitting the quality of life of older people in Wales, says Older People's Commissioner Sarah Rochira. NATHAN BRIANT reports.
IN THE two years she has spent as the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, Sarah Rochira is happy with the impact she has made – but she said more must still be done to ensure Wales is a good place to grow old.
Ms Rochira, who spent more than 25 years working in the public and third sectors in Wales before being appointed to her current role, acts as an independent voice and champion for older people and works to ensure the issues important to them are heard prominently across the country.
But she is clear cuts to services valued by older people are impacting – and she wants them to preserved because of their importance to people’s lives.
She said: “Older people have been really clear with me – they’re not soft issues, they’re lifelines. One lady was telling me – and I remember the conversation vividly – her adult education course was her lifeline, it was what she got up for and the contact she got up for was what kept her going.
“Another woman told me her husband had had a stroke and was told to go for a small walk every day because it would help get him on his feet and build up his strength again. But he can’t. She said the problem is they’ve closed the public toilets and he’s worried about being caught short – for the want of a toilet.
“They talk to me about public transport, and buses, and community facilities almost more than any other topic. They think they matter – I think they matter too.
“The reality is authorities across Wales are having to make very difficult spending decisions and my message to them has been very clear – do not see these services as softer services. They are the very highly preventative services. And in the scheme of things, they’re not that expensive either.”
Charities working for older people agree. Age Cymru’s head of policy and public affairs Graeme Francis said: “We are living in a difficult and challenging economic climate and Age Cymru’s main concern at this time is that older people and older people’s services are not disproportionately affected by budget cuts.
“Age friendly communities provide everyone with the opportunities, facilities and services that they need, such as day centres and public toilets, to lead rewarding and fulfilling lives.
“Without facilities such as these, there is a real possibility that older people can feel cut off from society and isolated.”
Costs are increasing especially for those considered older people and running their own community groups. Colin Baker, who started Newport-based community hub Bettws in Bloom 17 years ago, said costs for utility bills have increased markedly.
Mr Baker, 71, said his group are strong “because of the connections I have always had” working as a charity co-ordinator for 50 years – but that other costs, the impact of cuts and less money going around is making running it more difficult.
But he said he had a simple remedy to that – the group has to increase the number of grants they apply for.
He said: “We are not paid, we’re all volunteers. It has affected me in that I have had to apply for grants. But it goes straight back into the community.”
But Bettws in Bloom is relatively lucky. Other Gwent groups were cut as a direct result of cuts – but former members have tried to carry on helping people regardless.
Blaenau Gwent Council for the Disabled was closed after £13,500 worth of council funding was axed from its £33,000-a-year grant.
The group closed but Hilda Barwell, who served as its secretary for 31 years, said although she has continued to help out friends who used to use the club, she said many of them have been left to feel abandoned.
She said: “They do not know what to do. A lot of them are disabled and they don’t want to go down town – and if they get there everything is so expensive.”
Nevertheless, the Welsh Government appears to be acting on Ms Rochira’s recommendations.
A public consultation as part of a white paper, Listening to you – Your health matters, sets out proposals to improve health and wellbeing in Wales, including increasing provision of public toilets.
But for all the talk of older people, categorising what one actually is is difficult.
Ms Rochira said: “The answer depends on who you ask. According to the Welsh Government, you’re an older person when you’re 50. For my work, which is laid down by an act of Parliament, it’s when you’re 60. But the reality is the age we are is not a good way to determine who we are.
“I’ve met people who are early fifties and struggle and I’ve met people in their eighties who are having a great life.
“So I don’t get too hung up on the definition.”
But she said the respect given to older people in society could and should be improved.
While people might have different words for their relatives and friends, and she thinks respect for those individuals is usually “very high”, other language can be inappropriate when referring to older people.
She said: “It’s pejorative, derogatory, sometimes it’s defamatory – silver tsunami or demographic time bomb. It’s an outrageous thing to call older people.
“And there’s a phrase I particularly hate which is: how do we pay for the burden of care of older people? We wouldn’t say it about any other group and if they did we’d challenge it.”
In a report published last week, she said as part of a roadshow taken across Wales to measure what older people want, she and her staff have travelled over 20,000 miles and met more than 5,300 people.
In Driving Change for Older People, she says she provided help, support and advice for 795 older people. From that, 127 were queries on residential care, 110 were on healthcare and 41 on community service and financial service respectively.
A Welsh Government spokesman said it has looked to make progress on how older people are treated, not least by being the first UK country to appoint an older people’s commissioner.
He said: “Since 2010, the UK Government has cut the Welsh budget by nearly £2 billion. Despite this, we have taken steps to protect local services as much as possible.
“It is essential that we listen to what older people say is important to them. Our vision is that people in Wales feel valued and supported, whatever their age.
“We’ve taken action to improve support for carers, to cap domiciliary care charges for older people at £55 a week, to provide free bus passes for 725,000 older people, and provide free prescriptions.”