Next month will see Ruth Marks step into the new shoes of older people’s commissioner for Wales. And for someone about to take up what is believed to be the first role of its kind in the world, she seems remarkably sanguine.
There are more older people in Wales proportionally than in other parts of the UK – 22% of its population is over 60 – and the numbers are increasing.
“We would be foolish to ignore this,” says Marks who sees the high numbers of older people bringing particular problems that other parts of the UK might not share.
“This is partly because of the numbers and also because the specific needs of some older people link back to our industrial heritage which has had a negative impact on health, income and housing stock.”
At 46, some might consider Marks too young to call herself Wales’ older people’s champion. But she says her “personal and professional experience, empathy and commitment” make her right for the role – and obviously won over the group of older people involved in the appointment process who recommended her as the best candidate out of 42 applications from UK and abroad.
Marks has worked for more than 25 years in Wales in the public, private and voluntary sector and will be leaving her post as director of RNIB Cymru to head up the Commission for Older People in April.
As a student, she worked as an unqualified care assistant in a residential home. Later in life she was involved in organising care packages for both her grandmothers, she supported her father until he died a few years ago and is currently supporting her mother-in-law.
As to why the role was deemed necessary, Marks points to the success of the Welsh children’s commissioner in upholding children’s rights and a recognition that this could be transferred to older people who need an independent voice and someone to listen to their needs as much as children.
Her role will include ensuring older people are involved in decisions that affect them ensuring services meet their needs challenging discrimination protecting and safeguarding and supporting older people when things go wrong.
In the first instance she plans to go about this by gauging what the situation is like across Wales and checking that service providers – primarily in health and social care – have policies and procedures in place to involve older people and are using them effectively, and that older people are aware of their complaints procedures.
“If there are gaps or things are not as they should be I would go back to the lead authority or appropriate inspectorate or public service ombudsman.”
If she comes across worrying trends, for example, she hears similar complaints about the same care home, she can use her legal powers enshrined in the Commissioner for Older People in Wales Act 2006 and “dig a bit deeper”.
“Legal powers allow me to check that an investigation has been done and recommendations followed through. After that I can undertake an investigation and ask for papers, meet people and take evidence and get to the bottom of something if it hadn’t been got to by other agencies.”
If necessary, she can take her findings to the Welsh assembly for national debate.
Eligibility criteria, continuing care and long-term care would all be on Marks’ priority list and she imagines they would be on older people’s list too, but where they would fall on that list is open to debate, as “the priorities have got to come from older people themselves”. She has found that older people’s concerns range from income and pension, benefits, fuel poverty, access to health and social care, transport, mobility and isolation.
Marks’ independence in the role means she is free to question policy. With this in mind she notes that tightening eligibility criteria is stifling the prevention agenda. “Prevention and early intervention and maintaining older people’s choice is paramount. Eligibility criteria being tightened is challenging.
“I would request that the main players involved in these situations come together and look at the impact and what it’s going to mean in the future. [I’d ask them] in order to meet a short-term need are we creating something that has a far more significant impact on people – would it be better to look at this a different way?”
Those sort of questions are probably for a bit further down the line. For the moment, her first task will be to get out and around Wales as much as possible in the first few months, to meet forums of older people and also to seek out those who aren’t actively involved in these networks, letting people know about the commission and its role.
So how will she measure her first milestone of success? “If you’re talking to older people in a year’s time, that they know about me and my role, that they can get the service they need from the office and we are looking at the priority areas they have identified.”