Artillery Row

The grim truth about social care

We need to restore a sense of generational solidarity

After years of avoidance, and a particularly dire 19 months for the elderly, the issue of social care has been put under the spotlight. You might think that a year of death, destruction and neglect in care homes, caused by successive lockdowns and ministerial mistakes, would prompt politicians to look more generously upon the issue of caring for our elders.

The best defence government ministers can come up with is that the rules are “better” than before

You’d be wrong. Instead, the government announced an amendment to the new Health and Care Bill which changes the rules for the calculation of social care costs, including new restrictions on whether state benefits can contribute towards the new £86,000 cap. With a notably slim majority in the House of Commons on Monday evening, the government managed to secure its changes.

The new rules could severely disadvantage working-class people when it comes time for them to need help in later life. Those who have assets between £20,000 and £100,000 (like many Northern homeowners) won’t be able to use any council help received to contribute towards the £86,000 cap. In short, this means many people will have to sell their homes or bankrupt their savings to pay for care when they’re old and infirm. It seems that the best government ministers can come up with as a defence for the new rules is that they are “better” than before, with Boris Johnson pointing out that the existing system prevented people from getting support if they earned “£23,000 or more”.

Whether you agree with the Labour Party that this constitutes an attack on the poor, or whether you buy Johnson’s bluster that the new rules are “addressing a longstanding social injustice”, this tinkering with the cap on social care sets a pretty low bar. We didn’t need a deadly pandemic to tell us that there was a problem with social care — scandals about neglect, underfunding and stories of old people dying of hypothermia during winter have made the headlines for years. How much people have to pay for social care becomes relative when they realise that unless they can fork out for expensive private care, they’ll be selling their house to join a system that is cash-strapped and often poor quality.

Long before the word coronavirus was ever on our lips, elderly people were being routinely discussed as “bed blockers”

While the government boasts about social injustice in relation to pay caps, they seem incapable of joining up the dots between the cost of care and who is being paid a pittance to do it. Low wages for staff and a lack of funding for councils in deprived areas has meant that many care homes and care workers have been struggling for years. The experience of the pandemic and successive lockdowns has merely brought these problems to a head. This week, Unison asked 1,637 of its care-sector employees about their working conditions and found that 97 per cent of those surveyed complained that residents were being left unwashed and neglected because of staff shortages. Very few people seem willing to admit that along with staff burn out as a result of battling a terrifying and deadly virus, the new rules for mandatory vaccination for care staff have also had a huge effect on staffing levels.

We don’t just need tweaks to the payment system or a few extra million thrown at the system haphazardly for workforce retention, we need a revolution in social care. But the government’s allergy to big-picture thinking isn’t just a symptom of penny-pinching — the lack of imagination around how to care for an elderly population springs from a general misanthropy towards our elders. Long before the word coronavirus was ever on our lips, elderly people were being routinely discussed as “bed blockers” and spare-room hoggers. A generation war has been stoked by politicians using the grievances of millennials to deflect the blame of poor resources and a stagnant economy onto their baby boomer parents. Youthful commentators often point the finger at grandad for consuming too much, greedily buying a house, having too many kids, not being woke enough and even living too long. In this context, it’s no wonder that old people are often left to rot.

There is a short but chilling fairy tale by The Brothers Grimm, published in the early 1800s, about an old man and his grandson. The grandad, “whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled” was forced by his son and and daughter-in-law to eat out of a wooden bowl on the floor because he couldn’t manage to sit at the table without spilling soup on himself. It is only until the couple watch their four-year-old son collecting wood to make “a little trough for father and mother to eat out of when I am big” that they realise the error of their ways.

Today’s cult of youth could do with a similar dose of moral reckoning. There are many reasons to care about social care — not least because the (mainly female) staff who do emotionally and physically taxing work have been underpaid and undervalued for too long. Social care should be a more integral part of life, with communities more involved in their elderly relatives and neighbours than just being concerned with the basics. This means spending on resources like libraries, halls, functions, buses, days out, but it also requires a shift in thinking on our part. When I worked in a care home as a student, I realised that most of the upset among residents came from loneliness — a problem that has been overlooked during a pandemic concerned with PPE, safeguarding and enforced isolation.

We need to stop viewing old people as a problem to be dealt with. We must rekindle our sense of generational solidarity — not just because we too will one day tremble over our soup bowl, but because a civilised society should care about all of its citizens.

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