Older people need financial support more than ever – but bank closures have cut them adrift
Jackie Andrews knew most of the staff at her local bank. She would enjoy a pleasant exchange and have her banking matters sorted without a hitch. But the branch in Tolworth, Surrey, has now closed.
Jackie, 69, is a retired district nurse with mobility issues. To visit a branch she must now either drive to Surbiton, navigate finding a parking space and then walk to the bank, or drive to a bus stop and take a bus. “All of this can easily take a couple of hours when it used to be 15 minutes. I don’t do online banking,” she says.
“It’s assumed everyone can use it, but if you weren’t brought up with tech, and didn’t have a job that required you to use it, then it doesn’t come easily at all.”
An average of 54 branches have closed each month since January 2015, with 736 in total shutting for business during 2021, according to Which? NatWest is planning to close 23 more high street branches in addition to 43 closures that have already been planned.
Lack of support
As a result, many older people feel they have been cut adrift and left struggling to access basic banking services at a time when money worries are rife. According to research by Age UK, 43 per cent of over-65s would have to travel further if their local branch closes, with 28 per cent incurring extra costs to do so.
Although many older people use online banking, significant numbers are unable or unwilling to manage their finances online. Some live in areas of poor broadband connection or do not have the appropriate devices – or the money to buy them. Others struggle with health issues, or lack the knowledge or confidence to take that step.
A review by the British Bankers Association found banks are not doing enough to support older customers in the face of widespread branch closures. Pat Trueman, 76, is a retired secretary who is widowed and lives in Leeds. Rather than travel to her nearest bank – which she is unable to manage alone – she finds it more convenient to visit a cashpoint at a local supermarket.
“I probably do it all wrong,” she says, “because I draw out a big amount that’ll last me a good while.” However, despite using a wheelchair since suffering from a stroke last year, Pat has no plans to switch to online banking. “My main worry is fraud. You hear it all the time. They can get into your account and once they’ve done that, you’re snookered,” she says.
Pat’s concerns are common, with almost a third of older people fearing being defrauded, according to Age UK’s research. Banks insist that customer habits have changed, rendering in-person services virtually redundant. Just days ago, Lloyds Banking Group announced the closure of another 18 Halifax and 22 Lloyds branches.
However, research by accountancy firm KPMG suggests that the cost of living crisis has resulted in more customers wishing to discuss money worries face to face with a member of staff.
Age UK is calling for improvements to the new Financial Services and Markets Bill to protect older customers, many of whom rely on face-to-face banking. While the Bill includes specific safeguards for depositing and withdrawing cash, the charity wants assurance that other banking activities such as starting bereavement procedures, arranging third-party access and opening a new account – all services available in-branch – have the potential to be protected in future.
Meanwhile the charity is also offering training to help older people improve their digital skills and access online banking with confidence. Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, says: “Every week we hear of another round of bank branch closures, which means even more older people who don’t want to or who can’t bank online are left without an obvious means of managing their financial affairs.
“We know that the banks are closing branches to save money, but millions of older people have relied on banking face to face throughout their lives and are turning to Age UK for help.”
Impact on community
Banking services aside, branch closures can devastate a community – it’s one less reason to visit our already beleaguered high streets – and leaves older people more vulnerable to loneliness.
Susan Jones, a retired teacher, campaigned hard when her local RBS branch in the small town of Biggar, Lanarkshire, was earmarked for closure in 2017. “We are very rural with no train station,” she says. “My mum, who also lives here, is 86 and registered partially blind, so she can’t drive and buses to the nearest town of Lanark – 12 miles away – are infrequent. Many retired people live here and not everyone finds it easy to suddenly switch to a mobile app.
“My mum and many others need a local bank,” Susan continues. “The alternative offered was a once weekly mobile bank which would stay for only 40 minutes. It’s unacceptable to think of elderly people standing outside in a queue, possibly in freezing weather – and if they have not been seen in the allotted time, then too bad.”
A fierce campaign with a petition, an information stall set up in the town and support from the local councillor resulted in a reprieve and the branch remains open – for now.
Respect and sensitivity
Before my own mother moved into a care home she started to experience memory problems. Sometimes she would forget her PIN for the cashpoint at the same RBS branch frequented by Susan Jones’s mum. In panic, when mum could remember it, she would withdraw colossal amounts – literally hundreds of pounds – which she would keep stuffed in her jacket pockets.
As soon as I discovered this, we visited the branch together where mum was advised to speak to counter staff whenever she needed to withdraw money. Treating her with respect and sensitivity, the staff member reassured and supported her in a way that only an actual person can.
When I’d been granted Power of Attorney, branch staff helped me to set up online banking on Mum’s behalf. Without their help her finances would have been in disarray and impossible to manage. Mum’s reluctance to engage with technology was understandable. On numerous occasions she had been targeted by scammers asking for her banking and other personal details over the phone. We had even involved the police.
The thought of having one’s hard-earned savings stolen is very real and frightening, as is the worry that a single error could have serious consequences. “With online banking I worry that I’d make a dreadful mistake, press the wrong button and wipe my account,” Ms Andrews admits.
“As is it, with the local branch gone I worry that I can’t do things in time, like pay my bills. I now pay them by credit card, on the phone, which probably isn’t the best way. We all need money to survive,” she adds, “and to be able to transfer money. It’s just part of life. But I don’t feel the bank is catering to my needs.”
Age UK is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Macmillan Cancer Support, RBLI and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927