According to The Economist magazine, one person in five in Britain will be over 65 years old and those over 85 would have doubled by 2026. Moreover, it quotes a government statistic which reckons that half of all men and two thirds of women will require care and support in their old age. At present many poor pensioners get free assistance through their local councils, who are already feeling the pressure of increasing demand and tight budgets. This, as uncovered by several media exposés, has severely compromised the quality of care (helpless grandpas lying in their feces for days on end, 90-year-olds being fed Quavers crisps for supper because the care worker is too strapped for time) which is very often outsourced to private companies who’ve bid the lowest amount.
The truth is, the government simply cannot afford to care for all its wise folk. And despite proclamations by Gordon Brown that he will establish a National Care Service, he is only too aware of what a gargantuan challenge elderly care poses at a time when the money taps are drying up and the number of pensioners is raising. No wonder then that this week, the Health Secretary Andy Burnham called for a cross-party conference to consider sweeping reforms of the existing system, whereby there would be provisions to make people pay for their own care through things like a mandatory state insurance scheme or the very innovative £20,000 death tax levied on your estate for those less eager to save during their lifetime.
Whichever of the plans floated is finally passed, there is undoubtedly going to be a huge backlash among voters who seem to think it is their god-given birthright to be cared for by the government so that they can leave behind an inheritance for their kids. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation at least a million old people, despite having a net worth of a £1,00,000 in the form of homes, still qualify for care benefits because they have insufficient liquid income flows to pay for their own care. Would it then really be a crime to levy a charge on these people after their deaths? I don’t think so.
On a broader level, though, even as discussions on how to monetarily solve this problem carry on, this whole issue taking political centre stage just stinks of how irresponsible and egocentric Western societies are becoming. It is yet another reflection of how we’ve shirked our responsibility and passed the buck on to the government when it should in fact be playing only a peripheral role in the whole affair. Caring for the aged is primarily a family responsibility, not a government obligation and we seem to have forgotten that. In India, like in many other countries, old people living and being cared for by younger ones in the family was, and to a large extent still is, the norm. It works well in keeping the family structure and support systems alive. Of course with large scale urbanization and the rise of nuclear families, things are changing. But since government care is largely absent in India (which isn’t exactly the way to go either, since there ought to be some way through either tax breaks, medical help etc to ease the burden on severely constrained households), families continue to fulfill their responsibilities, however inconvenient it may be to do so. The concept of old age homes is on the rise, but there is still a stigma attached to it, and it is seen as something meant only for the helpless.
And it ought to be, I think. What sort of justice is it to leave your elders rotting away in some care home, turning your backs on them when they need you the most? Over a 3rd of the older people in Britain live alone and 4,80,000 pensioners today are living in long-term residential care, having been forced to sell their homes to foot the average £25,000 bill annually. I rather sincerely hope this isn’t the way India goes as it becomes more prosperous and ‘Westernized’. Even with all its progress and changing social attitudes, thankfully family values still play a big role and hopefully will continue to do so.
At the end of it, however professional elderly care gets, no amount of it can compensate for the basic human feeling of being wanted and surrounded by loved ones when you are at your most vulnerable. At the most, reforms can ease pressure off the treasury and ensure better quality care, but it can’t tackle the basic problem that is the premise of all of this – a lack of psychological wellbeing among the elderly because of the isolation they face. Maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee! After all, what goes around comes around and one day we all will be in the same boat…