Material deprivation: it’s not just about the money for older people…

Work by older people’s forums in the North East could help change the way we look at how we judge quality of life in our later years.

For two years now, the Government has published a ‘Pensioner Material Deprivation Indicator’, based on nearly eight thousand face to face interviews annually with people aged 65 and over.

The last one was published last June, and carried handy information on, for instance, pensioner poverty (going down apparently), and concluded that 14 per cent of pensioners (1.7 million) are getting by on a “low income” (defined as 60 per cent of median income after housing costs) with nine per cent of pensioners (800,000) defined as “materially deprived”.

But what does this mean? Is 800,000 a high number or a low one? And (presuming it’s a “bad thing”), what can be done about it?

We naturally assume that deprivation means not having enough food or fuel; getting by on clothes we bought in charity shops; or struggling to pay basic bills – even when living a fairly austere lifestyle.

Yep, it’s all of those. But, critically, the Government recognises that “Deprivation can be caused by financial or non-financial reasons” and that “Policies to improve incomes are important, but are only part of the solution.”

In other words, money (or having “enough” of it) is not the be all and end all. I think we’d all agree on that. To quote the immortal words of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen: “My old Dad used to say to me, ‘Money doesn’t buy you happiness’.” Although for some a lack of money entailed living in a shoebox in t’middle of t’road.

So how do older people themselves feel about all this? When the Government presented the findings of the 2012 survey to older people’s representatives – the UK Advisory Forum on Ageing – there was recognition that many areas had been well covered, but there were reservations. One regional forum in particular, ‘Years Ahead’ from the North East, felt there was more that the survey could do.

While having a regular survey allowed you to assess whether material deprivation was going up or down, it was a fairly crude mechanism, with many of the factors that DO represent ‘deprivation’ not included.

Moreover, it was a broadbrush approach geographically. Were pensioners in the South West faring better than those in the North East and so on? The figures didn’t drill down that deep, although regional data will almost certainly be available in the Households below average income report later this year.

When they voiced their concerns to the Government Minister concerned, Steve Webb, he put down a challenge to them: come back with ways in which you would change the survey.  Just under a year on and the regional form ‘Years Ahead’ have done just that. Around 150 representatives, working in focus groups throughout the North East, have made a list of suggestions – ranging from the way questions are asked to what additional areas should be deemed important.

Critically they questioned the use of ‘pensioner’ in the title: is this someone of state or private pensionable age, because they could still be working?

There were serious concerns that aspects such as loneliness and isolation were not covered adequately. Having enough money to go out, for instance, is not much use if the local community café is closed down, there are no buses to get out and about on, or people are afraid to go out of their front door because of poor urban design.

The fact that many older people would not, through pride, admit to problems was also voiced. Equally salient, putting surveys like this together is all very fine and dandy… but what use are they being put to?

The main recommendations that came through from the research by Years Ahead can probably best be summarised as:

  • Include indicators important to older people’s lives, such as insurance coverage, social and healthcare budgets, lifelong learning and access to IT.
  • Drill down deeper to reveal differences between different age cohorts and geographical areas, and single / multiple occupancy households.
  • Make the information available to key organisations – such as clinical commissioning groups, and police commisioners so more use can be made of it.
  • Promote the results and demonstrate how they are being used to guide Government policy and development.
  • Address and prioritise the policy areas coming out the indicator – such as creating age friendly communities, involving older people in decision making, fuel poverty, concessionary travel and a fair state pension.

So what happens next? Steve Webb warmly welcomed the input, but made it clear that the tanker on the national index had already left port: you couldn’t make wholesale changes because you could not then compare next year’s findings to previous ones.

But he felt strongly that there was scope for revisiting the current index with the input of older people, and taking forward local research into the sort of issues covered by material deprivation. While a national indicator had merits, it could never hope to influence local decision making and priority setting… but work providing insights into local issues and good practice, could.

So, the next stop is to try and find funding for several (or, ideally, more) localised pilot surveys to demonstrate their potential value. There are some major areas to consider: logistics, cost, the reassurance that many will need before divulging sensitive information… but the rewards could be considerable. There is no central ‘pot’ available to do this – but the advantages to local / regional players to be involved are obvious.

Neither should there be a fixed template on how this should happen: indeed, it would be preferable if local groups do have the flexibility to be innovative, as well as tailor their approach to ensure they achieve the maximum relevance in their own area. By equipping themselves with evidence gathered at the local level they will then be able to support / challenge the national or regional findings.

Being armed with detailed, objective data about the lives of older people, and the factors that impact most on their quality of life, could lead to a more holistic approach being taken on funding and delivering a whole series of support mechanisms and that existing support (such as free bus transport, community schemes to get people out of their homes and socialising, and digital inclusion programmes) might be seen in a broader context.

No, quality of life isn’t necessarily about the money. But it can come down to how wisely the money available is actually being spent.

Tony Watts is Chairman of the South West Forum on Ageing and a member of the national partnership board of the Age Action Alliance as well as being on its editorial board.


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