At the heart of the Christian faith is a duty to love God and one’s neighbour. My focus here is on how we love our needy neighbours. People of all ages may need our loving care but that is especially true in relation to our neighbours who are elderly, possibly alone and with a diminished capacity to care for themselves.
We live in an ageing society. The numbers of people aged 65+ are projected to increase by 49% over the next twenty years and those over 85 are expected to increase from 1.4 million to 2.7 million in those years. It does not inevitably follow that they will all become increasingly dependent but it seems likely that some will.
The traditional source of support is by family members but increasing levels of family breakdown could make it hard for some to fulfil this responsibility. Divorce rates are falling but family breakdown statistics have risen by 8% in the last decade and are still rising so we now have the highest rates of breakdown in Europe. It is cohabiting couples, who already account for 19% of couples, who are splitting up and Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation thinks half of today’s teenagers will cohabit rather than marry.
That could increase the pressures on local authorities to look after the growing numbers of elderly citizens who need personal care. The welfare services that local authorities have a duty to provide include advice, support and practical assistance in the home, providing equipment and home adaptations that enable the citizen to cope for themselves. They might include regular visits by social workers so the recipient does not deteriorate because of loneliness and isolation. In some instances, the provision of a daily meal or supervision of taking prescribed drugs would be part of the service. Once nursing care becomes the major need, the NHS becomes responsible.
The relationship between the NHS and local authority social services is currently a major issue. Whilst the NHS is under financial pressures and needs more doctors and nurses, the health service has been protected more than the local authority social services, which have been squeezed by the Government’s austerity policies since 2010. The division between the NHS and local care services has not worked well for either of them. It has led to bed blocking in hospitals when patients cannot be released into the community if there is no adequate support for them there.
There are now calls for the creation of Integrated Care Trusts that provide a joined-up service. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) sees this as a means of providing free personal care for everyone over 65 who needs it. The IPPR estimates this would increase spending on social care from £17billion to £36 billion by 2030 but it would reduce admissions to hospitals, prevent bed blocking and provide a better care service in the community for those who need it.
These proposals merit serious consideration but there is also a need for Churches and Christian households to consider how we look out for our neighbours to whom we might show some loving care. We do not need professional training to invite a lonely neighbour for an occasional meal and a chat. We might do some shopping or cut the neighbour's lawn occasionally. Such neighbour care could be a blessing to them and make our Christian profession more real.