Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Since the first Day in 1992, it has become a day during which we are invited to give some thought to the grinding reality of poverty across the world. When our television screens are full of the faces of starving children in Africa or India it is probably easier for us to recognise the reality of poverty. It is probably less easy to see that reality in the lone parent struggling to make ends meet, in the child without the material possessions its peers take for granted or in the hidden life of an older neighbour too afraid to put the heating on in winter for fear of spending savings they no longer have. Poverty in our midst and in our community is often less visible and more hidden unless it is quite literally enshrined in a body sleeping rough and destitute on a doorstep. The United Nations has declared Fighting Poverty to be one of the key aims of their Millennium Development Goals. It is a recognition that poverty only grows unless direct action is taken both to address and eradicate it. The impact and effects of poverty are increasingly recognised and known not least in terms of attainment, education, life quality and importantly upon personal health. As a society we are much more in tune today than in the past with the need to address poverty especially as it impacts itself upon children and young people, recognising as we do the detrimental results this can have on the whole of their lives. One area we are less aware of or even open to discussing is the reality of poverty amongst older people. Indeed there is a growing public mantra which suggests that today’s older person has never had it so good and that those who follow will never ever enjoy the same benefits and wealth. At a factual level it is undoubtedly true that there has, especially in Scotland, been a sharp decline in what is often termed ‘pensioner poverty.’ That has to be acknowledged but the starting point of the improvement were the shockingly high levels of pensioner poverty a couple of decades ago. Acknowledging improvement also risks ignoring the reality of acute poverty, emptiness and detrimental health outcomes for a sizeable minority of older people in Scotland today. According to Scottish Government statistics:
- In 2014-17, before housing costs are accounted for, 19% of children, 16% of working age adults and 17% of pensioners in Scotland were living in relative poverty.
- After housing costs, 24% of children, 19% of working age adults and 13% of pensioners in Scotland were living in relative poverty.
By any calculation those are shameful statistics for a society as developed and relatively wealthy as ours. Behind every statistic is a story of personal pain. Thankfully there are no shortage of programmes and projects – and indeed Government focus – to address child and adult poverty and the mental health distress that results. But what is there for the 17% of older people living in relative poverty? Sadly and comparatively not as much as there needs to be or could be. Undoubtedly measures like free prescriptions, support with fuel, free bus travel and elements of free personal care have and are making a difference .. but… more could and needs to be done to address the issues of poverty, older person’s mental health distress, loneliness and isolation affecting too many older Scots. We are rightly appreciative that life expectancy has increased for both men and women. However, the length of time spent in ill health is also rising as the incidence of health problems increases with age. There is an inextricable link to living less and being unhealthy and the poverty an older person experiences. The lower a person’s social status, the more likely they are to enter older age in poor health and die younger than people from higher social classes. This is especially evident when we see the impact of the social patterning of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer. It is quite right that attention is given to child and adult poverty for that will significantly impact on older person health but it is dangerous – I would suggest – to ignore the factual reality of the impact of poverty upon some older Scots today and to primarily focus on poverty and older age as a future challenge. I met Joan a few months ago. She was born to a family which looked after the pounds as she put it. She was brought up with a canny Scottish appreciation of what she had and a desire never to be beholden to another. She worked hard as a secretary and saved the small amount of extra she was left with. She never married and although she had nieces and nephews they have moved away and become strangers. Joan is now in her nineties, lives in a small flat which she has rented for years, and she struggles every day. She laments the fact she can’t look after herself better, doesn’t go out as her friends have all ‘passed’ and doesn’t receive any services or support. Joan is poor but she would never ever use that word and would be affronted if she knew anyone used it to describe her. But Joan eats one small meal a day usually uncooked which in her own words gets smaller as she gets close to pension day; she massively relies on her fuel allowance but it still isn’t enough to keep the cold away in winter; she never sees anyone as she no longer can manage to go to church; she doesn’t watch television since her old set broke and she can’t remember when she last bought herself some clothes. Yet Joan proudly declares she has enough to bury herself – although no one has had the heart to say that what she has saved will never be enough. There are too many folks like Joan living as our neighbours, the quiet forgotten ones in our midst, their silence speaking to the heart of our vibrant communities. They are not included, rarely noticed, and not missed. They do not show their poverty, yet its truthfulness is as real as that we see in those more visible. Joan is poor. Her poverty is not just of material belonging but of connection, contribution and value. Today’s Day for the Eradication of Poverty should encourage us all to continue the struggle to recognise the poverty of older age, which is so easy to ignore and which all too often remains hidden. Dr Donald Macaskill CEO Scottish Care @DrDMacaskill