THE BLOG
20/09/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 20/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Lack of Media Interest in Gloria Foster's Death a Sad Reflection of Society's Attitude to the Elderly

A former secretary at global corporation Shell, in her youth Gloria Foster was described by a friend as "incredibly glamorous, she loved life". In later life, following a stroke, her vitality faded, and she became reclusive, not wanting her many friends to witness her decline.

Increasingly confused, Gloria instead relied on an agency called Carefirst24 to provide her care, but when the business closed following a raid by officers from the UK Border Agency, a terrible mistake was made and no-one seemed to even remember Gloria's existence.

Nine days later, Gloria was found by a district nurse, lying on her bed in her flat suffering from starvation and dehydration. Two weeks after being admitted to hospital, Gloria died.

A Serious Case Review (SCR) into her death has resulted in an apology from Surrey County Council, who became responsible for Gloria's care after Carefirst24 closed, and the suspension of two members of staff.

In a week when the awful life and death of Daniel Pelka has rightly received significant attention, it is notable that Gloria's sad story has not attracted anything like the type of publicity that a story about child abuse does.

Is it simply the case that uncaring and youth obsessed journalists are not interested in stories like Gloria? Or does the media simply reflect the concerns and interests of society as a whole?

Ruth Cartwright, Manager at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) believes the evidence is overwhelming that the welfare of our older people fails to rouse public interest in the same way as safeguarding children.

She comments: "Would the public outcry have been considerably greater if the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, where neglected patients were so thirsty they were drinking the water out of flower vases, had involved children's wards, or if serial killer GP Harold Shipman had murdered 250 children rather than older people?"

Unlike cases of child abuse, no-one has deliberately set out to cause harm to people such as Gloria Foster but that is of little comfort to grieving friends and relatives when the results of poor care are so devastating.

As a society we abandon some of our older people to poor and unreliable care from agencies that pay their largely untrained, sometimes even illegal, staff less than minimum wage.

Gloria was funding her own care but many older people are reliant on care provided by local authorities, often through an external agency.

Ruth Cartwright questions the commissioning and inspection of such care agencies. "Do the commissioners look beyond price, and are checks made about staff employment practices and the viability of the agency upon whose care people's lives literally depend?", she wonders.

Many people would not even realise that social workers work with older people as well as children, and are working under equal amounts of pressure as their colleagues in child protection.

Much good work is done by social workers and their colleagues in social care to ensure that adults who need support are able to enjoy some quality of life, but cases like Gloria's show the terrible consequences when mistakes are made and older people are allowed to vanish from the system.

Gloria's suffering must have been truly terrible. Sadly, as services and staff are so overstretched, with social care so poorly paid and lightly regulated it would be foolish to try and pretend her case is an isolated incident.

Ruth Cartwright says: "People are being discharged from hospital in a rush, agencies are struggling to provide care staff, and funding is inadequate. Many older people don't want to 'make a fuss' and ask for the help they need and to which they are entitled.

"When they do ask for help, they are often given the bare minimum. This is not what social workers want and many fight for the needs of vulnerable older people to be met. It is not too much to ask that older members of society are treated with respect and dignity, to be afforded comfort and care."

But with ever decreasing demand for services as more people live longer and further cuts to council social care budgets, this basic ask seems a remote possibility unless you are financially well off.

Ruth Cartwright feels councils will have to wait and see whether the government's pledge to provide additional funding will materialise, but even then this may be a case of too little too late as cuts have already taken effect, such as tightening the eligibility criteria for care and support for adults in need.

"Gloria's sad and lonely death again highlights the need for social workers to be given the capacity and resources to offer decent services and support. They must be central to co-ordinated service provision, not vague satellite figures at the margins of an increasingly fragmented, privately dominated sphere", she said.

Unless support services are properly regulated, resourced and readily available, cases such as Gloria's are highly likely to happen again.