This week the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a report revealing that the number of older people needing informal care will outstrip the number of family members able to provide it as early as 2017. Worrying news for a social care system already creaking under the strain of not enough funding and too many people in need of care.
In the past many older people would receive care and support from family members and perhaps have some of their basic needs met by friends and neighbours. But our society has changed dramatically over the past few decades. City living has resulted in many people living in anonymous flats and apartments with a high turnover of neighbours far away from their families. Satellite towns where people simply go to sleep and commute daily into a nearby city for work and leisure are increasingly common. As a result, there is a growing population of older people who do not live near to their families and this will be increasing the need of support.
The report suggests that we look to other countries, including Germany, Japan and Australia, for ways that we can tackle this problem by creating purpose built communities and arranging for older people to be paired with or 'adopted' by local families. This is not the first time this has been suggested, Italy and France both have similar schemes that over the years have been touted as solutions to our growing problem of how we can care for the elderly in the UK.
Our population is ageing and undoubtedly as a society we need to be better prepared for how to meet the care needs of this group. Tailored housing support is a must as is taking into account the need to ensure that older people do not become lonely and isolated. Whilst the recommendations in the report would go some way in supporting those with a low level of need, I worry that they will be delivered as a cost cutting measure, rather than looking at what a person needs.
I've written before about my concerns on relying on neighbours to step in where the social care system should be working and the lack of choice it presents for people. If an older person would like the kind of set-up suggested in these schemes then it is a good thing. However, we should not be forcing older people to rely on the support of untrained friends and neighbours and they should be presented with a choice as to the kind of support they would like to receive. Volunteers can provide high quality support in the right circumstances and with the right training and supervision, but this is not without cost. Untrained and unsupported well meaning neighbours can undermine a person's independence in their desire to help by doing things for a person who needs to keep actively doing things for themselves.
The ageing process is complex. Common problems that older people face, such as sight and hearing loss or dementia, require specialist support and tailored information and advice. Adequate funding for social care is needed so that communities can play an appropriate role while those who need more specialist support receive it. As the Barker Commission has shown, we can afford the cost of this. The question is, are we willing to make the hard choices needed. If not, what does that say about us and our attitudes to older people?