There is much to celebrate about our older population and the tremendous value they offer the country, but far too many face significant and long-lasting challenges in their lives such as poverty and low income, poor health, loneliness, discrimination, and social exclusion. An increasing number of older people are finding it incredibly difficult to pay their household bills and are now at risk of falling into unmanageable debt because of the worsening cost of living crisis.
Our new First Minister must go further than ever before and commit to bold new action to improve the lives of older people in Scotland.
High on our list is greater action to tackle pensioner poverty. It’s a national scandal that so many pensioners and older people live with such low income, with little to no progress on reducing this in recent years. There are 150,000 pensioners in Scotland in relative poverty and one in five people between the age of 55 and 64 are in this position too. Scotland can do much more to help, but action has been lacklustre.
The First Minister should work to tackle poverty across all ages and use the might of their government to encourage and support greater take-up of all available social security – irrespective of which government administers it – and develop an effective pensioner poverty strategy to tackle the issue head on.
Loneliness was a huge problem for older people before the Covid-19 pandemic. It takes a serious toll on a person’s physical and mental health, but two thirds of older people who live alone say the pandemic has made them even lonelier. Government has a fundamental leadership role in preventing and addressing this through co-ordinated policy and investment. Serious funding commitments should be made to ensure that measures and services which connect people, such as community groups and transport services, are supported in the long term.
Fuel poverty is a growing threat for many Scottish households. Last summer our research with SGN identified that 40 per cent of over-50s believed they lived in fuel poverty. Cold homes can have life-threatening and limiting consequences. Last December, for instance, ambulances were called out to more than 1,000 patients suffering from hypothermia. Prioritised and sustained investments in energy efficiency measures and developing the network to deliver it is vital. There is very low awareness of the support on offer and agencies who exist to help, so by using the new data on benefit recipients, the Scottish Government can target activities to households on the lowest incomes and least energy-efficient homes to greatly reduce fuel poverty rates.
Older people have told us that they support radical reform of social care. The uncertainty over the creation of a National Care Service must be resolved urgently. Whatever the way forward must deliver responsibility and accountability on the Scottish Government for how the system works.
It has never been clearer that our precious social care system needs bold reform and a significant boost in investment to ensure equity of access, choice, human rights, a reduction in waiting times and that people are placed at its heart. But many of the immediate issues facing social care need swift action. Higher pay and improved conditions are needed for the care workforce, and unpaid carers need much more support, recognition and access to services. This is not just vital for the here and now, but for the future too. Ready availability of social care in the community would help to reduce the deeply problematic rates of delayed discharge from hospital.
Ultimately, our new First Minister must work hard on making Scotland the best place in the world to grow older.
Mark O’Donnell, chief executive of Age Scotland