David Prosser: On long-term care, no-one seems to

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The Independent Online

Almost two-thirds of the baby-boomer generation - aged between 45 and 65 - have made no provision for the potential cost of long-term care in old age, according to Help the Aged. The charity is shocked by the results of its research, but to me the real surprise is that a third of people have put something by.

There's no doubt the long-term-care system is in a mess, particularly in England and Northern Ireland, where the state support on offer is least generous. If you need to go into a care home, or require care in your own home, you'll have to pay for it, unless your total assets, including, crucially, the value of your property, are worth less than £21,000.

That has led to the deeply unpleasant situation of social-services departments ordering families to sell the homes of people requiring care, in order to fund the cost. At one of the most difficult times for any family, when an older relative needs basic care, wives, husbands and children also have to cope with finding large sums of money to pay for it.

To make matters worse, few people understand how the rules work. While people are required to pay for residential care, including accommodation and help with activities of daily living such as washing and eating, medical care remains free under the NHS.

But professionals take different views about where personal care ends and medical care begins. Many families have had to take their local authorities to court in order to claim the help they are legally due.

The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that central government does not provide local councils with sufficient funding to cover the cost of personal care and residential accommodation. Many private nursing homes have actually closed down because they cannot afford to run on the premiums offered to them by local councils placing older people with them.

What's really angered many campaigners is the Government's abject failure to face up to the problem. One of Labour's first initiatives on taking office in 1997 was to set up a Royal Commission to look into long-term care. When the inquiry subsequently declared that it favoured free care for all, ministers simply ignored the findings.

These issues are genuinely difficult. Is it really fair to expect the state to cover the cost of care in old age for the really wealthy? On the other hand, how are the majority of people, with more modest incomes and savings, expected to save for the huge potential cost of care? This group is already struggling to save for retirement, having been told by the state to make their own pension provision.

But we can't go on like this. The huge confusion about how the rules work makes planning ahead difficult even for those who can afford to. Underfunded local authorities are almost obliged to exploit those who do not understand the system. Meanwhile, the one in four 65-year-olds who will need some sort of long-term care in the future go on suffering.

What a brilliant idea from the Post Office: we will now be able to pay for postage online and print out a barcode to stick on letters and parcels rather than a stamp.

For anyone who has ever spent their lunch hour enduring a lengthy post-office queue simply to spend 25p on sending a letter - let alone put up with colleagues begging stamps - this new facility will be hugely useful.

I have just one reservation. Up and down the country, post offices are being closed, even in rural areas where they play a crucial role for local people and small businesses. If people stop going to a post office to send mail, will the organisation feel entitled to shut down even greater numbers? Let's hope not.

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