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Who cares?

The good news is that we Britons are living longer. Average life expectancy has doubled since 1841 and is now 79.2 for men and 82 for women.

Thus 18% of the population are now over 65 and 2.4% are over 85. The possibility of living to 100 and receiving a telegram from the Queen is no longer a rarity but this trend raises some serious issues for individuals, families and society.

Ageing can lead to an increasing prevalence of age-related conditions and disabilities. A House of Commons paper reports that a quarter of people over 60 have two or more chronic conditions and the number of people with dementia is “projected to increase from 850,000 to 2 million by 2051”. This inevitably increases pressure on the NHS and Local Authority social services. It has added bed blocking to the pressures on the NHS where an elderly person cannot be discharged because there is no safe place for them with adequate support.

Traditionally that would have been provided by their families but various social changes have made that less likely. Families may no longer live close to each other because younger members could have moved away to find work. Increasingly the cost of housing compels couples to both have jobs to pay the bills. The increased incident of family breakdown is another factor. Care at home by the local social services personnel is one alternative and another is to go into a private care home, but neither are without problems.

A BBC News report found that 338,520 adult social care workers had resigned in 2016-17, a majority to leave the care sector completely. Too many of them had been employed on zero hour’s contracts and the average pay for a full-time care worker was only £7.69 per hour, or £14,800 per year. One estimate is that there is a shortage of more than 840,000 care workers. Private care homes are also finding it hard to survive financially. A report in January recorded that 929 homes, housing over 31,000 pensioners had closed. The introductions of the living wage and cuts in what local authority social services will pay the homes have made them financially unsustainable. 

Spending on adult social care has been cut by 17% since 2010 as successive Chancellors have struggled to cut the budget deficit. Today there are calls for increased Government spending on the NHS, national defence, policing and education and social care is not a top priority.  Local Authority budgets have also been squeezed by pressure not to increase their Council tax levels at a time when wages have risen very little. There is little prospect of any significant increase in their social care spending.

So who will care for lonely and needy neighbours? The Apostle Paul addresses this question in 1 Timothy 5 concluding that the primary responsibility lies with the family but a church should help those widows who are really in need (5:4 & 16b). My own church serves a monthly lunch and a Christmas dinner for lonely people and offers to do shopping and gardening for pensioners in the local community. This is part of our response to Christ’s teaching about loving one’s neighbour. But why can’t anyone who supports a Neighbourhood Watch scheme stretch its objectives to include looking out for its senior citizens living alone? More than that, how can social attitudes be changed to encourage stronger family bonds so that there are fewer elderly people in need of social care?

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