On this day last year, we were still very much in the of the height of the pandemic and hopes of an effective vaccine seemed like a very distant dream. I’m pleased to be writing to you from a much more positive standpoint since then and I’d like to take this opportunity to commend our older people for demonstrating wonderful resilience and positivity in the face of such adversity.

The past 12 months have of course been challenging but there have been some positive developments and I’m hopeful we can all start to look forward to brighter days ahead. The vaccination programme has been hugely successful in offering protection against COVID 19 and I’m delighted to hear that the booster vaccine is currently being rolled out to care home residents and staff across Northern Ireland. This will bring some vital added protection to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Over the past few weeks I have met with a number of party leaders in Northern Ireland bringing to them a range of key issues affecting older people that I would like them to consider ahead of drafting their manifesto for the next assembly election.

We are an ageing population, with the population of Northern Ireland aged 65+ estimated at 314,700 in 2019 and it is projected this will rise to 631,000 by 2051 (NISRA, 2019).

Older people and their interests must be considered by elected representatives when making decisions, now more than ever. I will continue to voice my view that the next Programme for Government must include a high-level outcome for older people which will support and promote better health, support safe, secure environments for older people to live in, provide opportunities for older people to be economically and socially involved and enable older people to increase their income security to prevent them from falling into poverty.

I also want to see the introduction of an Adult Safeguarding Bill without further delay. This was a key recommendation from my Home Truths report following my investigation into the care and treatment of older people living in Dunmurry Manor Care Home. Vulnerable older people living in Northern Ireland are not adequately protected in law, and that is why a safeguarding bill is needed to help address many of the weaknesses in our current system. Whilst I welcome the Health Minister’s announcement last September of his plans to introduce this Bill, it has not yet progressed through the Assembly. This Bill needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

Over the past year in particular, the effects and impact of loneliness has been felt harder than ever before. In the engagements I have had with older people, I am hearing that chronic loneliness is becoming even more prevalent with a recent report by NICVA, finding 88% of people in NI say loneliness has become a bigger problem since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and that 71% of people in NI want the Northern Ireland Assembly to do more to tackle the issue of loneliness.

Tackling loneliness has to be a priority for our society and that is why I am calling for a loneliness strategy for Northern Ireland to be introduced to address this growing problem.

Lastly, the announcement from the major gas suppliers in Northern Ireland, of price increases of 35% and 21.8% is of huge concern. These price rises come alongside significant increases in electricity and home heating oil prices over the past year.

We need action now to support those who will struggle to heat their homes this winter. I have written to the Minister for Communities, who is responsible for tackling fuel poverty, asking her to consider introducing an emergency hardship fund that people can seek assistance from or to introduce a payment similar to the £200 Covid-19 Heating payment, which was made earlier this year to people receiving certain benefits. Introducing a hardship fund or one-off payment would go a long way to helping those who are hardest hit by these rises, to get through the difficult winter months ahead.

It is my hope that by the next International Day of Older People we will have seen significant progress on some of these key issues. I’d like to thank the older people in our society for the contribution they continue to make to our families, community and economy - our society is greatly enriched by their active involvement throughout all aspects of life.