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BLOG: Help us to be family as well as carers, Mr Hunt

In a speech to the National Children and Adults Services Conference (NCAS) in Harrogate last week, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said residential care should be is “a last rather than a first option” as British people should follow the example of people in Asia by taking in elderly relatives. BASW England Manager Ruth Cartwright offers a response.

When I worked as a member of a social work team in a hospital, I was impressed by the huge devotion shown by many carers, usually family, sometimes friends and neighbours, who were looking after the older people who we met. 

In the case of those with dementia this could be something of a thankless task, but these devoted people, who were completely unpaid, often refused to consider giving up, despite the physical and emotional toll of caring.

My thoughts turned to them when I heard Jeremy Hunt’s speech. Apparently all their efforts are not sufficient.

While Mr Hunt makes some important points, namely, our older people are not held in high regard by society as a whole (including Government), and when we read of terrible residential care such as that provided in homes such as Orchid View, we may agree that residential care should be a final resort.

I, however, experienced the speech as an exercise in emotional blackmail. 

The minister seemed to be saying that families should pull their socks up. Yet the majority of people are already doing their best for their relatives.

Within such families, both partners are likely to be working as well as looking after children. There may be financial worries, and other domestic stresses and strains.

Of course, in my practice I have experienced some families who were not caring at all and were colluding in abuse or exploitation of older people, but such people represent a tiny minority.

With another housing bubble, anxieties about employment, and runaway inflation, who among us can seriously afford to take in our frail older relatives as Hunt suggests?

 Perhaps to a wealthy politician this does not seem like such an ask, but most of us do not have houses with rooms to spare.

The best we can do, and it is what most people do, is make sure our relatives are comfortable, warm and fed in their own home and have frequent visits and outings with children and grandchildren.

We are not assisted in this by the odd 15 minute care visit, and often, instead of spending time with our relatives in conversation, reminiscing, laughing and talking, we are having to sort out care emergencies, doctor and hospital appointments, bills, shopping, housework, gardening, running repairs of home and equipment – the list goes on. 

If there could be more good quality care from the state into which we and our older relatives have all paid, more people could spend positive time with their families. 

To ignore the effects of the Coalition’s cuts on the public services local authorities can offer their senior citizens is disingenuous in the extreme.

Contrary to a popular view espoused by many doctors, who can be very quick to suggest care, most of us appreciate that people are best looked after in their own familiar home.

Residential care has its place and there are good homes with a great range of activities, but these are for a time when an older person is in too parlous a state for a relative to be able to care for them.

In the case of Orchid View, it seems that in this particular home people were grossly neglected and these deficiencies were not picked up by the inspectorate, so of course we welcome a better CQC focus on residential care.

On behalf of all those who are involved in the lives of their older relatives and friends, I say to the Government, please free up some real resources (and not this £2bn for integration which merely inadequately replaces the £2bn we’ve lost in recent years). Not only to help us care, but also allow us to be sons, daughters, or grandchildren to enjoy the company of our beloved and much valued older relatives.