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Halving of bank branches an increasing problem for older people

Age UK calls on financial sector to implement ‘age-friendly’ solutions

Nearly 10,000 bank branches have closed in the last 25 years  – that’s over half of all branches across the UK – leaving hundreds of thousands of older people without access to basic banking services, according to Age UK as it launches its new report ‘Age-friendly banking – what it is and how you do it’. Faced with the decline of traditional banking and the rise of new approaches including online banking, the Charity is calling for more consideration of the needs of older customers and how these can best be met, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas which have been hard-hit by branch closures.

The issues caused by changes in banking are impacting across the developed world so in conjunction with the AARP  – a 38 million strong US-based membership organisation for the over-50s – Age UK has explored some of the ground-breaking ways in which some progressive banks are trying to ensure older people’s banking needs are properly met. In its new report, published today, the Charity showcases examples of good practice which, if rolled out more widely, could revolutionise the way in which the banks interact with older people and transform their customers’ experience for the better.

Technological change is bringing both challenges and opportunities. The over-65s are a highly diverse cohort, accounting for £145 billion in household spending in 2013 alone. But high numbers of older people remain digitally excluded – 4.5 million over-65s in the UK – for many different reasons: for some the cost of getting online is prohibitively high, a lack of computer or digital skills or access to training puts many off, and some have concerns about security issues amid frequent reports of scams and financial abuse. In addition, it is not uncommon for older people to face increasing difficulties with mobility, physical disabilities such as sight loss, hearing loss or arthritis, or cognitive decline which can make it difficult to remember passwords and security codes.

In its report, Age UK is calling for all banks and building societies to move faster and work harder to respond to the needs of our ageing society. While a minority of older people use internet banking most have a strong preference for in-branch banking, preferring face-to-face service, the chance to talk to people, and the security of seeing their bank transaction take place and receiving a paper record to prove it. But with shrinking bank networks there is a big question mark over how banks can continue to provide this sort of service.

Age UK argues that potential solutions include telebanking, enhanced use of the Post Office, joint bank branches and mobile branches. Highlighted in its report is the example of a successful Mobile Branch Banking service provided by RBS Group which covers over 11,000 miles and serves 600 communities each week, providing services including cash transactions, bill payments, account balances and cheque deposits. Over the past three years the RBS Group has expanded its fleet with 28 new vehicles which have features such as high visibility markings on steps and handrails and open plan designs – all favourably received by the Charity’s research participants who supported the service on the proviso that it remains regular and reliable.

In its report, Age UK outlines the key ways to create an age-friendly bank:

  • CUSTOMER SERVICE – make sure that staff are trained to recognise the specific needs of older people, to listen to what customers say to them and to respond appropriately, especially with regard to cognitive decline, scams and financial abuse.
  • PHYSICAL DESIGN – design branches to be easily accessible, arrange suitable alternative physical services in the absence of a branch, ensure all customers know about accessibility options.
  • SYSTEMS – make sure information is handled reliably and processes are carried out in ways that meet the needs of older customers.
  • PRODUCTS – remove arbitrary age limits and design financial products to fit the shape of later life as it is lived today.
  • HOW A BANK SEES ITSELF – a bank is a community of stakeholders with a variety of interests, situated within a larger society. The more a bank sees itself as interdependent with that larger society and with responsibilities to all its stakeholders, the easier it will be for the bank to adopt practices that are friendly to older people.

Good customer service – including listening carefully, speaking clearly, better call handling systems and the ability to be sensitive to customer vulnerability – perhaps unsurprisingly tops the Charity’s age-friendly banking checklist. Santander’s provision of vulnerable customers’ awareness training, RBS and NatWest’s decision to remove target call handling times and Nationwide Building Society’s ‘Helping Hand’ unit are, among others, all cited as examples of good practice in the report. But the Charity warns that much more needs to be done to create an age-friendly banking sector that will benefit everyone as they move through later life.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: ‘Older people often tell us about the challenges they face when it comes to managing their money. The increasing reliance on online methods is difficult for many and bank branch closures can leave older people feeling high and dry, but we have been heartened to hear about some creative and successful approaches that work well for older people and for banks and building societies too.

‘The examples highlighted in our report show that by listening to older people and implementing new approaches intelligently the financial services sector can make real progress towards meeting the needs of an ageing society. That’s why we’re urging every financial service provider to put ‘age-friendliness’ at the heart of their propositions. Not only is this good for older people, it can make great business sense as well.’

Other age-friendly case studies included in the report include: Coventry Building Society’s work to help customers avoid scams, Lloyd Banking Group’s system for registering a Power of Attorney, Barclays Bank’s local Carer Forum events, RBS and NatWest’s accessible debit and savings cards, and the introduction of mobile cheque imaging by Barclays Bank.

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