June 2, 2011

UK: The elderly must not be forgotten about again

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LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Comment / June 1, 2011

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Without urgent, lasting reform, it is not only the elderly and their families who will suffer, but the economy and public services as a whole.

The elderly must be better looked after Photo: Getty

There is a hint of desperation in the open letter sent to party leaders today by various organisations involved in caring for the elderly. They warn that the system is close to breaking point after a decade or more of political indecision, and urge the parties to take a constructive and consensual approach when Andrew Dilnot’s Commission on Funding of Care and Support publishes its conclusions next month.

The signatories are not being alarmist when they talk of an over-burdened system being close to collapse. Last week, the Care Quality Commission reported that, on unannounced inspection visits to NHS hospitals, it had found elderly patients being prescribed water because nurses were not checking whether they had enough to eat or drink. Other patients spent the day in nappies because nurses were not prepared to help them use commodes. That such shocking abuses should be taking place in British hospital wards in the 21st century should give pause to those who insist that our lavishly funded health service is not in need of fundamental reform. However, an equally disturbing picture of unacceptable standards of treatment has been found in many care homes for the elderly.

Such institutionalised neglect is a direct consequence of political neglect. Recognising that there was a crisis looming, the last government set up a Royal Commission into elderly care in 1999. But when Labour found its conclusions unpalatable, it decided to sit on its hands for the rest of its period in office. Will the present Government act any more responsibly when Dilnot reports? The omens are not good. The Coalition’s retreat on NHS reform is turning into a rout. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, is now so mired in the process of salvaging something from the wreckage that the notion that he might be devoting any thought to elderly care is fanciful. There is a risk that, rather than being handled in a mature and non-partisan way, the Dilnot proposals will be caught up in this debacle, and used as ammunition in the ferocious party political turf war.

This would be disastrous. Carers UK, one of the signatories of today’s letter, puts it succinctly: without urgent, lasting reform, it is not only the elderly and their families who will suffer, but the economy and public services as a whole. The key is funding. The Dilnot Commission is looking at private insurance schemes to help pay for elderly care. Such co-payment mechanisms are surely inevitable. As we report this morning, a baby born today can expect to live to be 128. That should surely spur our timid politicians into taking the hard decisions that will be necessary if we are to ensure a dignified life for the elderly.

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