What the National Survey does (and doesn’t) tell us about people’s experiences of growing older in Wales
When I published my first State of the Nation report in 2019, I highlighted that older people were in danger of being rendered ‘invisible’ to policy- and decision-makers due to a lack of meaningful data in key areas about people’s experiences of growing older in Wales.
Understanding what it’s like to be an older person living in Wales today, the issues and barriers that make older people’s lives more difficult and the gaps that potentially put older people at risk, as well as the things that can make a positive difference to people’s lives, are all crucial to ensure that the right resources, services and support are in place to support us all to age well.
A key resource and evidence base to support this understanding is the National Survey for Wales, which involves around 12,000 people of all ages throughout the country and covers a wide range of topics, including health and well-being, finances and our communities.
The latest results provide some useful insights into key issues affecting older people and highlight areas where action is needed to ensure that progress is not lost due to the impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.
For example, the results reveal that over a third of people aged 65+ in Wales – over 220,000 people – report finding it difficult to get a GP appointment, and that 42% of people aged 65-74 and 37% of people aged 75+ have not seen a GP during the past 12 months.
Difficulties or delays in getting an appointment can have a significant impact on older people’s health and well-being, and we know that prevention and early intervention can make a big difference in treating and managing the health conditions that may affect us as we get older.
Ensuring that older people can access their GP is therefore crucial, particularly given the role that GP services play in supporting older people to access wider NHS service and support.
In terms of our communities, the survey results also highlight that 1 in 5 people aged 75+ (over 60,000 people) say they do not have access to good services and facilities in their area. This highlights why action to make our communities more age-friendly – which includes ensuring older people can access the services and facilities they need – is so important to support us all to age well.
Alongside this, it is also important to note that two-thirds of people in this age group (over 200,000) feel they are not able to influence decisions affecting their area. This suggests there is a need to not only consider how services and facilities for older people could be improved but also the ways in which older people can be enabled to participate and contribute, and better supported to engage with local decision making. Older people’s voices need to be heard and their knowledge, skills and experiences used to shape the services and facilities in our communities and ensure they are able to meet everyone’s needs more effectively.
Encouragingly some findings also indicate positive progress that shows the need to build upon good practice already being delivered.
In 2019, for example, the survey results revealed that 60% of people aged 75+ did not ‘make personal use of the internet’. Since then, this figure has improved significantly: according to the data for 2021-22, this has dropped to just over 30%. It is important to note, however, that this still means that around 100,000 people aged 75+ do not make personal use of the internet.
Although the pandemic is likely to have had some impact, with more older people getting online to keep in touch with loved ones and using online services while restrictions were in place, this improvement is also likely to reflect the very positive work being delivered throughout Wales to encourage and support older people to get online and use the internet safely.
In an increasingly digital world, it’s essential that we continue to support older people who want to get online to do so (whilst also supporting those who do not wish to get online to access information and services), and a key part of this will be ensuring that we build on the successful initiatives, partnership working and good practice being delivered throughout Wales by our public services and the third sector.
This National Survey provides helpful information and insights about the experiences of growing older in Wales but there are some key issues missing.
For example, previous surveys captured data on whether older people felt in control of their lives and could do the things that matter to them, things that are closely related to our health and well-being and quality of life. This question wasn’t included in the 2021-22 survey, which makes it difficult to compare how the past couple of years may have affected older people and the way they feel about their lives.
Similarly, data relating to long-term health conditions, illness and disability, and the limits these may place on individuals, is not available this year. At a time when additional resources are being allocated to support health services to reduce waiting lists and deal with the Covid backlog, this data would have useful in helping to identify how and where resources could be allocated most effectively in both the short and longer term.
Key data relating to older people surviving on the lowest incomes, an issue that affects older women in particular, is also not available this year. With prices continuing to rise rapidly, a trend expected to continue throughout the year, and many older people throughout Wales struggling financially, this data could have helped to ensure that financial support, as well as wider work such as awareness raising about entitlements such as Pension Credit, could be targeted at those who need it most.
Given that it is likely we will be both living and dealing with the impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis for some time to come, it will be important for this data to be captured as part of next year’s survey to ensure we are in the strongest possible position to understand older people’s experiences and target support and services effectively.
As Commissioner, I will continue to use and scrutinise the data that is available about older people’s experiences, such as the National Survey and recently published Census data, to support my work and calls for change. In addition, I will continue to engage with older people throughout Wales, to capture and amplify their voices and experiences, as well as commissioning research to fill data gaps relating to key issues affecting older people.
But as a nation we also need to ensure we take every opportunity to capture meaningful data that helps us to understand older people’s experiences, and enables us to monitor ongoing trends and changes. This is essential in helping to provide the necessary evidence base for good policy making and implementation to deliver the changes and improvements that older people want and need to see.