Thursday, 22 May 2014

Oh, and there's a dog...

Sandra Ward, Information and Advice Manager for Age Cymru Powys, talks to us about older people in rural communities and her vision for help and support that could make a real difference.

Tell us about your day job

I have been an adviser for 30 years – that makes me feel very old.

It really is a strange way of earning one’s living, but it can be both rewarding and interesting. I never know what the day will bring – it can range from the sublime to the downright heartbreaking. From advising how to deal with a bee swarm lodged in a chimney, to supporting a lady of 92 coping with losing her lifelong partner and for the first time having to deal with banks, benefits and all the paperwork which follows a death.

I know we all suffer the distress of easing information from, and giving help to, those who are in a ‘bad’ place. But in the midst of these problems are lighter moments. One of my longest days was when I was with the Citizens Advice Bureau. I was helping a young family who were homeless. It was a Friday, especially relevant because one is aware that the problem has to be solved that day – nothing will be open over the weekend. Panic time then! I had spent most of the day finding this young couple somewhere to stay, and this was before the 3 young children came out of school. But at 4pm I was triumphantly standing at the door of the Advice Centre ready to speed them on their way to a booked and funded bed and breakfast. The young father suddenly turned and said; “Oh, and there’s the dog!” (An Alsatian, of course!) I often mutter to myself in times of stress - when I need a giggle - ‘and there’s the dog’!

Powys is a rural county, what does this mean for older people?

As Manager of Age Cymru Powys (formerly Age Concern) I see a great many people with problems which are aggravated by the fact that they live in a rural location. For my clients the additional rural problems are the following: difficulties in accessing help and advice; support services are either stretched by distance or non existent; lack of transport – whether that is limited public transport or simply that due to age and/or disability they have lost the use of their own transport. This of course, affects access to health services especially in Mid Wales where we are often sent to Telford for hospital appointments. All these limitations can cause acute loneliness – something the majority of the people I speak to suffer from. My job in Powys is almost completely different to that of an Information and Advice worker in an urban area where supporting services are near at hand.

Powys (my patch) is the 9th most rural county in the whole of the United Kingdom and the least most populated in Wales. The average population in Wales is 147 people per square kilometre, in Powys it is 26. Also we are ¼ of the area of Wales, so some of my outreach service advisers can travel for 1½ hours just to get to their destination. So you see I really do know about rural poverty.

Is there anything causing real concern to older people in Powys at the moment?

At present we are finding that the Government Welfare Reforms are causing us a great deal of work. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that a fit and able person of working age should be employed. It is only when knowing that one is valued and worthwhile that you gain self respect and self esteem. However, if you are 50+ and have health problems – maybe a stroke or an accident at work; you are actually less likely to be able to work. Possibly the job you trained for and have always done is now physically beyond you, so your whole life has to change. This is fine if you are fit, alert and mentally able to cope with complete change, but if you are depressed and unwell to suddenly find yourself in a minefield of forms and interviews it becomes impossible to find the impetus to navigate onwards. My colleagues and I help them do this and it can be both difficult and very, very sad. People are angry because they can’t work at their chosen trade, depressed because their life has changed for the worse and very frustrated that the Welfare State, far from helping them, seems intent only on making them slot into a ‘fit for work’ category.

I had a client, a gentleman of 64 who had previously worked on the land; he had had a stroke and was quite disabled. However, he was found by the Employment and Support Allowance Team to be fit to do office work. This chap was unable to use one side of his body and was incontinent. I explained the ruling and possible options for him. He sat quietly in my office, then said; “I would rather be dead than sit in an office smelling of urine.” This man had worked constantly for 35 years and had never expected to rely on state benefits. Not the type of unemployed scrounger that some of the politicians and the popular media portray. I am on a few national committees, not because I have the time but because people like that man are unable to verbalise their frustrations – but I try to make their feelings known and understood.

What other challenges do you face in Powys?

The challenges of communication both in reaching those who are vulnerable and for older people to participate in social activities are vast. Public transport is very limited, many of the bus routes are weekly services or limited to one or two buses a day – a large number of villages are not visited at all. We have recently lost even more of these routes. Over ½ Powys households are classified as being in area 8, ranked the worst 10% in Wales for access to services on foot or by bus.

Interestingly we also find that language causes a barrier. We run a bi-lingual service but find that the majority of our work on the Welsh border is requested in English. As we ‘go west’ across the county it becomes more predominately Welsh. Because my main office is in Newtown some people consider our service ‘English’ and hesitate as to whether they would find help there. In fact some of my ‘main language Welsh’ clients are additionally vulnerable because they have scant knowledge of the help they could access.

I have over the last 5 years piloted and run an elder abuse project for Powys County Council. I chose primarily to visit Lunch Clubs because these are the older people who are just coping but needing some support and therefore beginning to be at risk. It involves a positive and upbeat talk; firstly about older people’s rights – such things as ‘You have a right to be wrong!’ So many elderly people keep silent, terrified that if they make a mistake they will be ‘put in a home’. We fight to give them control over their lives, without making the judgement of ‘what is best for them’. We then go on to discuss scams and abuse, in an open and safe environment. Sadly 60% of the 300 people I spoke to had been a victim of scams or abuse. If people are living in isolated rural areas they are far more likely to be at risk of unreported abuse. There is a desperate need for our advice service to reach these isolated and vulnerable people.

How would you like to be able to help older people in Powys more?

I started thinking about the problem from the bottom up, so to speak! I am involved in rural church life and have been for my whole life. As a child our church was the hub of our rural community and many problems were supported therein. Now I believe this supporting network has changed Рthe age range in our communities is unbalanced. Despite all our best efforts to attract the young, many of our congregations are made up of older people. A few of the more successful churches use their buildings completely and offer cr̬ches, welfare advice and community projects like cafes.

I had this in mind when I thought about my new project. As advice workers we need to be out there helping the lonely and vulnerable but I cannot sanction the expense for my advisers travelling 80 miles for a home visit, even if it is essential. So I thought that if I had a volunteer in each community and a paid adviser in a main office, whether it be Newtown, Llandod or Brecon then the volunteer could listen to the problem and phone for advice. The Bishop of Bangor informed me that the Church in Wales is keen for their buildings to be fully utilised - so churches, and maybe chapels, community centres and schools could be used at set times every week. My plan is that this would form a network of people to be a core community and therefore support their population who were at risk or in need. I’m just at the stage of trying to get funding for this but hopefully it could plug a little hole in the dyke!

What I see at present is that many people living in rural areas are being subjected to increasing stress and anguish as a direct result of decisions made in Westminster and elsewhere. It is necessary that we speak out – without prejudice – to inform those whose upbringing and life style leave them ignorant of the challenges of rural Wales. Reaching those who need help remains my priority and frustrating though it often is, I feel very privileged and honoured to be in a position to attempt this.

If you would like to discuss this idea with Sandra or offer her some support, you can get in touch with her on 01686 623707 or sandra@acpowys.org.uk or leave a comment below.

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