What we do and don’t know about ageing better in Wales

Recently the Centre invited Dr Anna Dixon, Chief Executive of the What Works Centre for Ageing Better, to visit us and exchange knowledge on ageing better with key stakeholders here in Wales at a roundtable and a public event. In this blog, Dr Martin Hyde, Associate Professor of Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University, reflects on one of the key issues raised during these events: the evidence landscape on ageing in Wales.

Population ageing is a global phenomenon. Today, roughly 9% of the world’s population (650m people) are aged 65 and over. This percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17% by 2050 (1.6b people). Wales is no exception. It is estimated that by 2038 a quarter of the population will be aged 65+. We should celebrate this success. However, there is evidence that improvements in life expectancy are slowing down and that not everyone is able to achieve a good later life. Hence it is imperative that policy makers and practitioners work to combat inequalities among the older population. Wales should be very proud of its pioneering work in this area. It was the first country in the world to appoint an Older People’s Commissioner to ensure that the rights and views of older people are respected. The Welsh Government has been proactive, publishing its first Strategy for Older People in Wales in 2003. Almost all Local Governments have an Ageing Well plan in place. There is also a fantastic range of third sector organisations, such as AgeCymru, and Cymru Older People’s Alliance, working with and for older people.

However, in order to understand the situation of older people in Wales and to know whether policies and practices impact on the lives of older people it is crucial that we have good information. Unfortunately, whilst there is lots of fantastic research that is undertaken in Wales, we have something of a ‘data deficit’  – both qualitative and quantitative – on ageing. I would say that there are three key areas we need to address:


1) Not collecting data on age

Age is one of the protected characteristics under UK law. Yet I am constantly astonished at how few organisations record age as part of their data collection. Thanks to increased attention on gender inequality at work employers are quite rightly expected to report on the gender composition of their workforce, pay, etc. However, when I have asked for information on the age composition of workplaces in Wales, for example, I have been told that this is not uniformly collected. This is not unique to Wales. A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report showed that only 17% of UK employers monitor the age composition of their workforce. This is a shame as there is evidence from other countries that more age-diverse workforces perform better. But without this information in Wales it is not possible to see if this is the same here. Ensuring that all organisations collect data on age, along with gender, ethnicity, etc., should be something that we could do in Wales and be leader within the UK.


2) Not collecting (proper) evaluation data when conducting interventions,

Since I moved to Wales I have been impressed by the sheer number of initiatives run with older adults. However, I also get frustrated at how little information is collected about these activities. This is a great shame as this information could be crucial in helping to assess which activities work, when they works and for whom they work. Again, this is not unique to Wales but is a common issue faced by local government and third sector organisations. I know that some of this comes from a lack of resources and/or a lack of awareness of what is involved in conducting an evaluation. Hence, I think that there should be a greater onus on the funders to clearly stipulate what sort of data are required, to give realistic estimates of the required resources and to signpost applicants to good guidance on how to do this. But I also think that we can do more in Wales, for example by bringing local government, third sector organisations and Universities together to run ‘evaluation workshops’ to help groups collect the information they need. We also need to get better at properly capturing and cataloguing evaluation results and, ideally, exploring ways to pool data to conduct larger, more powerful studies or meta-analyses.


3) The lack of a nationally representative study that follows people as they age

For me this is the most important gap that we need to address. If we really want to understand the experience of ageing Wales then we need to collect data on individuals as they age. For example if you just compared the health of retired people and people in work you might find that those in work are healthier. This could then lead you assume that retirement is bad for your health (and that we should all stay in work for as long as possible). But it could be that people retired due to poor health at work. Hence your assumption and policy message would be wrong. What you need in this situation is a measure of the health of the same people before and after retirement. This is called longitudinal data. Wales has a great history of such longitudinal studies, e.g. the Bangor Longitudinal Study of Ageing. But unlike all the other countries in the UK we do not have a national longitudinal study of ageing in Wales. Studies like the ELSA in England and NICOLA in Northern Ireland are producing fascinating insights into ageing in these countries. However, in Wales we are very quickly being left behind.

Wales has a great tradition of championing the rights and welfare of its older population. There is much for us to be proud of in what has been achieved so far. However, if we are to truly meet our potential to be the best country in the world in which to grow older then we need a world-class evidence base to match our global ambitions.