Claire Keatinge: an independent voice for older people

Claire-Keatinge---Commissioner-for-Older-People-for-Northern-Ireland Commissioner for Older People Claire Keatinge speaks to Meadhbh Monahan about the need for an ageing strategy and how she plans to ensure that older people have an adequate income to lead a fulfilled life.

“The paternalistic image of older people who have stopped contributing or participating is simply wrong,” states Claire Keatinge.

Northern Ireland’s first Commissioner for Older People, who was appointed eight months ago, argues that a more positive image of older people is necessary. “We need to move away from images of older people that are about Saga holidays or Bupa,” she tells agendaNi. “People live ordinary lives regardless of their age. Older people are our most significant asset. They have knowledge, experience and expertise.” A clear message coming from older people is that they want to contribute to society and not be viewed as “a passive recipient of care services.”

Since her appointment, the former Director of the Alzheimer’s Society in Northern Ireland has focused on establishing the governance, value-for-money and accountability mechanisms of her office. “They have to be right because I am determined that the only time the office is in the news is in relation to older people,” she explains.

The Commissioner for Older People (Northern Ireland) Act was passed in January 2011, stating that the Commissioner’s main aim is to safeguard and promote the interests of older people. She has the power to commission financial assistance for research or educational activities concerning the interests of older people, conduct investigations into the treatment of older people, and bring, intervene in or assist in legal proceedings.

Keatinge claims to have made “a confident and strong start” to ensure that she will be able to work independently and effectively. She has met with various older people’s agencies, government departments, health and social care regulators, and policing and criminal justice organisations. She may work with various age sector agencies, where appropriate, or may take independent action if she sees fit.

The Commissioner praises the Programme for Government for its target to extend age discrimination legislation to the provision of goods, facilities and services and its pledge to tackle crime against older and vulnerable people. While the programme does mention an older people’s strategy as a building block, she believes that “ageing issues need to be represented in every single one of the programme’s targets.”

Positive ageing

She is currently working with OFMDFM on an ageing strategy which is expected for public consultation in the autumn and should be published by the end of March 2013.

“It must be an active and positive ageing strategy that ensures that people of all generations and all ages can look forward confidently to the fact that most of us can expect to live longer and healthier lives than our grandparents,” she stipulates. It must not be “a top-down ‘doing-to older people’ strategy.”

A corporate plan will also be published in March 2013. From her conversations with older people in the province, the Commissioner has identified three key things that they “desperately want” i.e. hope, confidence and absolute certainty.

“They hope that they will live longer and have better health and well-being that their grandparents had the opportunity to … and enjoy [time] with their families. In civic life, they hope to continue to make a huge contribution to faith organisations, volunteering and community groups,” Keatinge explains.

Older people also want the confidence “right now” that they will have a secure and adequate income, that they will be safe in their homes, and that their economic contribution will be valued and recognised.

In addition, they want certainty that if they become frail, ill, vulnerable or are living in poverty, “they will a have the unequivocal practical support, health and social care and respect that they need to lead that dignified and fulfilled life right through to the end of life.”

Problems faced by older people include unclaimed benefits, particularly pension credit. Action for Benefits estimates that between £1.2 million and £2.3 million goes unclaimed in benefits each week in Northern Ireland. “It is not acceptable that so many older people who are entitled to pension credit do not receive it,” Keatinge states. Older people often find the benefits system to be complex and “there’s a feeling that asking for means-tested benefits is like charity.” While the Social Security Agency’s ‘Make the Call’ campaign helped uptake, it is “imperative” that this is dealt with, the Commissioner says.

“Mercifully, crime against older people is low,” Keatinge claims. PSNI statistics show that from the 70,536 crimes recorded to date in 2011-2012, 7 per cent (4,937) of victims were aged 65 or above. Of those, 30 per cent experienced criminal damage, 30 per cent had been victims of theft, 27 per cent had been burgled and 9 per cent were victims of violence against the person. Among the population aged 65 or over, this equates to 18 crime victims per 1,000.

The Commissioner continues: “It is very clear that crime and fear of crime are a significant worry for older people.” She wants policing and community safety partnerships to have clear targets on reducing crime against older people.

Her corporate plan will also focus on ensuring that health and social care services deliver “fair and equitable access at a standard and time and place that maximises the independence, health and well-being of older people.” The Compton review has recommended that health and care services move from residential to domiciliary care. The corporate plan therefore must examine what increased domiciliary care will look like. “How we procure and what we pay for domiciliary care will be critical to looking to see whether increased domiciliary care will really improve the support to frail, vulnerable older people,” Keatinge states.

Overall, the corporate plan will seek to achieve “an adequate level of income [for older people] to lead a dignified and fulfilled life.”

Her message to the Executive is to “demonstrably engage better with older people, listen to their views and find out not only how those who are easy to reach and are already engaged but those who are isolated and live in care settings, feel about access to government services.”


• uptake of pension credit

• tackling crime and the fear of crime

• ensuring that dignity, choice and respect are at the heart of care services

• examining the impact of increased domiciliary care

• recognising the contribution of older people to society

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