The recent South West Seniors Assembly called for a Commissioner or Minister for Older People to be appointed – to ensure we really are geared up for an ageing society. By Tony Watts OBE, Chair of the South West Forum on Ageing and SW Housing Champion for Older People.
Earlier this month, just shy of 150 representatives from groups and forums met in Weston-super-Mare’s Winter Gardens. Not just to talk about the challenges facing an ageing society, but to offer practical solutions.
We looked at the health impacts of pensioner poverty which still affect an unacceptably high proportion of older people, and the blight of isolation and loneliness. The cuts to health and social care, now affecting so many elderly, were discussed with passion and common sense. The need for housing providers to take the long-term view and build “lifetime housing” was another major thread…
In fact, over just a few hours, most of the bases were covered: the big issues that need tackling urgently. And what came over loud and clear is that huge improvements could be made to our public services, and to the quality of life of millions of older people, if only our public services were “joined up”.
Indeed, the need for more money wasn’t discussed. Everyone accepts that there IS no more money. And bearing in mind that the requirement for care and support is going to rocket in the next few decades as the number of people aged 65 and over increases by almost 50%, doing that on the same budget patently presents quite a challenge.
After all, many local authorities and health trusts are already buckling under the strain. How will they cope?
The short answer is that waiting until we get to the point where our public services collapse under the strain is not the sensible option. These issues need to be addressed immediately.
And the one big thing we could do right now is to stop government departments and public services working in silos.
Here is a classic example, right here in the West. In South Gloucestershire, the local authority is considering cutting – at a stroke – all of its support to make adaptations and improvements to older people’s housing. They need to find £160,000 of savings, and that’s what they’re spending through Care & Repair at the moment on – effectively – keeping hundreds of people living independently in their own homes.
Stop that spending, and many of these people will no longer be able to remain in their own homes because they won’t be able to afford the adaptations needed. Many may well have falls because they won’t be able to do simple things like replace light bulbs, get out of the bath or use their cooker safely. Many more will have to remain in hospital because their homes aren’t safe for them to return to.
Does this make sense? Of course it doesn’t. But it won’t be THAT department that will pick up the tab. It’s someone else’s problem. It’s pass the parcel – with the vulnerable elderly being the rather badly wrapped parcel.
All around the West, local authorities are “salami slicing” funding for community transport schemes. Yes, they’ll save money, but this will prevent many elderly people getting to hospital or doctor’s appointments. That will lead to treatable conditions developing into far more serious ones – requiring hospitalisation, a move into care or possibly worse.
Move up a notch to the Government itself. DCLG has just issued proposals on new house building. It describes making every new home “age friendly” as a “nice to have” option – not a requirement. Yet every think tank over the last few years has pointed out the huge cost savings achievable by “futureproofing” new housing, so we and coming generations can age in place, in our own communities.
This would reduce isolation and loneliness, prevent people from having to move home or go into care, reduce accidents and falls in the home as well as enable people to be discharged from hospital earlier.
Ironically, even the Government itself has recognised the benefits – in 2012, they issued a report estimating that a lifetime home would contribute £60,000 of health savings over a 60 year lifetime. Yet it cannot bring itself to tell developers and planners to make this happen. It leaves it to market forces. And we know what that means.
It makes me despair, it really does.
In 2012, I gave evidence on behalf of older people nationally to the House of Lords Select Committee which generated the “Ready for Ageing” report. I (and others) argued strenuously for “joined up” government. For the silos that divide health, social care, housing and transport to be demolished. The report concurred, lambasting the Government’s lack of preparation, and endorsing this joined up approach as THE way to make our society “ready for ageing”.
But it patently is not happening, which is why the SW Assembly voted almost unanimously to press the main political parties, going into the next election, to agree to appoint either a Commissioner or Minister for Older People.
Only by having someone with a measure of clout taking an overarching view on ALL the issues around an ageing society can we start to knock heads together, break down the “fiefdom” approach of too many public services and deliver the better quality health, care, transport and housing we and future generations need… and save public money doing it.