Earlier this year, during one of my regular door knocks, I called at a house and the door was opened by an elderly woman in her late 70s. She was dishevelled, distressed and clearly confused. She had an empty bubble wrap pack of medication in her hands and she said to me “I don’t know what I have to do”.
At another house, an elderly man, also in his late 70s, told me he was struggling to care for his grown-up daughter who had learning and physical disabilities, and wondered what Labour’s plans were for this. I will never forget the anguish in his face as he explained his fear for the future.
At a meeting with a local carer’s group I listened as predominantly elderly carers described the hundreds of hours a week they spend providing often back-breaking care for their loved ones. This, they told me, they mostly did without support or respite.
I could fill this whole article with stories of the cases I have had of older people in failing health or becoming increasingly infirm or with dementia, and their families not being able to get any support to help with their care. This is not an indictment of my local social services department, who try their best to help.
This reflects the diminishing resources for social care, as local government budgets have been slashed, the lack of integration between our health and social care systems, and an NHS which is struggling to cope. But it also speaks volumes of our political system which has failed to provide leadership or policies to address the ticking time bomb that has been ignored for years: our ageing society.
Fact 1: There are 10 million people over 65-years-old. By 2050 this will have doubled, and eight million will be over 80-years-old.
Fact 2: We may all be living longer but some of us are living longer than others and in better health: healthy life expectancy is 70 years for men in affluent Richmond, but a few miles away in deprived Tower Hamlets it is only 52.5 years.
Fact 3: Since 2010, £4.6bn has been cut from adult social care budgets – in spite of the passing of the Care Act in 2014 and the right, for example, of needs assessments for carers.
Fact 4: 87 per cent of social services departments only provided adult social care for people with substantial or critical needs.
Fact 5: Last year there were over half a million avoidable emergency admissions as frail elderly people are blue-lighted to A&E departments.
Fact 6: In England, delayed discharges of older people because of inadequate social care at home or in the community has cost the NHS £526 million since 2010.
In a country that boasts being the 5th wealthiest in the world, we are failing to provide basic care for our older people. Instead we see the insurance vultures circling with glee at the prospect of personal budgets coming their way. Delivering a National Care Service, as proposed by Andy Burnham, to be provided on the same basis as the NHS could be a game changer for older people and their families.
What about pensions? I hear you say. And you’re right. Governments of all hues have done much to address ‘pensioner poverty’ through the increase in the state pension and the triple lock guarantee – at 1.6 million people we currently have the lowest level of pensioner poverty in 30 years, although if you’re one of the 1.6 million you may not think this is a cause for celebration.
‘Auto enrolment’, the enrolment of all employees in a private workplace pension was designed to address the poverty faced particularly by people on low incomes and women who may not have accrued enough contributions to be entitled to a full state pension in their autumn years. But the opportunity for people on low incomes – for example, those on zero hour contracts or seasonal work – to benefit from auto enrolment was watered down by the former coalition government.
My concern is that in years to come, as the working population falls even further (in 2008 there were 3.2 people of working age to one of pensionable age, in 2033 it is projected that this will fall to 2.8), the state pension will shrink again; and while auto enrolment may be a buffer for many, it won’t be for the poorest. We will see inequalities widen even more.
The coalition government, in a fit of magnanimity, increased pension flexibilities to enable those lucky enough to have a pension lump sum to invest it as they see fit. But they paid little heed to putting in additional safeguards to prevent potential miss-selling or provide adequate advice, so we may soon be discussing a new pensions scandal.
Finally, as the government has deemed that the state pension age will increase to reflect that we are all living longer, I’d like to propose research into a more appropriate metric than life expectancy, for example healthy life expectancy, as the basis for determining state pension age.
Some people live longer and in better health than others; we need a retirement system that recognises these inequalities.