I'll do anything except go into a care home

If we don't value teachers, we insult carers. The pay is appalling, the job unattractive, the prospects pathetic
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The Independent Online

Last summer on Woman's Hour, Martha Kearney asked me if there was one thing I would change in Britain. I replied that I belonged to the first generation that simply would not tolerate the ghastliness of an old people's home. Often badly converted Victorian mansions on the outskirts of cities, miles from anywhere, smelling of urine and boiled cabbage. Lounges full of sagging chintz armchairs lined up around a television set?

No thanks! I am proud to belong to the baby boomer generation that worships good design, has no intention of retiring and is in the process of redefining what it means to be "old". I want to spend my eighties and nineties with my friends, having fun, behaving badly, not sitting in a little cell of a room stuck in my own excrement and waiting for a nurse to come and put me to bed when she has tucked up another 15 people. I want to live out my life in stylish surroundings, with loud music, the opportunity to work part time and to feel part of the surrounding community.

Those comments brought me a massive mailbag - clearly I had touched a nerve. Dozens of people roughly my age (57) contacted me to say that they too, dreaded the prospect of ending their days in one of these places. One listener summed it up when she wrote:

"I have a vested interest in what you say as I am 78 years old, destined to be a resident of one of these places waiting to die - the baby boomers must make plans now to avoid this fate worse than death."

Yesterday an old lady of over 90 died in a fire at a care home in Gumfreston, near Tenby, Pembrokeshire, the second fire at a British nursing home in a week. I very much doubt that the story headed the national newscasts. Nor was there thought given for the 14 people aged between 79 and 98 who died as a result of a fire in the Rosepark Care Home near Glasgow last Saturday. They have simply vanished from the newspaper headlines.

Old people, unlike John Lydon or Jordan, Mr Hoon or John Birt, aren't really sexy news. Not for one moment do I think that the Rosepark Care Home was in any way uncaring or other than utterly professional in the way it looked after its 40 or so residents. It was a purpose-built place, and had recently passed a rigorous fire inspection. Now a fatal accident inquiry will try to determine exactly why a blaze which started in an upstairs cupboard, and which only caused four metres of damage on either side, could have quite such devastating results.

But I do not want the wider issues raised by disasters like Rosepark to be swept out of our minds and set aside for the slow-grinding wheels of an inquiry to unravel. This was the worst care home disaster for nearly 30 years, but it is only surprising that it hadn't happened before.

Care homes rarely make headlines. In July 2002, 108-year-old Rose Cottle caused major embarrassment for the Government when she went on hunger strike and died. She was deeply unhappy that she had been moved to a new care home after the one she'd spent many happy years in was closed. A week later everyone had moved on to another, more pressing concern.

But the quality of life we are right to expect as we enter old age should be of paramount importance to every single MP. Let's consider the facts; by the time I'm drawing my pension in 2011, 20 per cent of the population, a staggering 12.2 million people, will be pensioners. Although spending on long-term care for the elderly is predicted to quadruple from the £11.1bn that was spent in 1995, it will never be enough. The incentives to run a care home and battle with the increasing number of rules and regulations (although Mr Blair is fond of saying they will not come into effect until 2007) has proved a major disincentive for anyone wishing to revolutionise this sorely-needed service in the way I outlined earlier.

In 2001, one in 50 places in care homes were lost as dozens closed, and a staggering 74,000 places have gone altogether since 1996, at a time when the population is actually ageing rapidly. But I for one will not be putting money aside in an insurance scheme so I can buy my little spot in one of the remaining establishments, no matter how cosy and purpose-built they might be. The whole culture of care of the elderly gives me cause for concern. If we don't value teachers, we insult carers. The pay is appalling, the job unattractive, the prospects pathetic.

Donal MacIntyre has made some excellent undercover programmes for Channel Five in which he has focused on the appalling standards of abuse and neglect within the care industry. The staff are often poorly trained and would earn more stacking the shelves of their nearest Asda. Of course there are excellent homes, full of happy residents and fastidious nurses. But there are dozens of cases of neglect and abuse which go unrecorded every single day. Once you've popped a relative in a care home, you've passed the buck to someone else to mop up after granny. You don't want too much information.

The National Care Standards Commission has been scrapped and merged into the new Commission for Social Care Inspection from this April, but I don't expect the cosy culture of inspectors ringing in advance of their visit to change much. And carers as an industry are always on the defensive. Mr Blair ought perhaps to stop focusing on weapons of mass destruction and their mysterious whereabouts, and start to consider the domestic time-bomb which is facing him over the next seven years, when one in five of the entire population will be pensioners with nowhere to live if they need care, no one to look after them and a National Health Service that will not be able to cope.

Urgent action should be happening right now - iconic baby boomers like Mr Terence Conran and Mr Paul Smith should be given massive tax breaks to come up with inner-city buildings that can be converted into the kind of old people's homes they might want to spend the night in. Let's pay Delia Smith and Prue Leith to focus on exciting catering, let's get Robert Winston and Miriam Stoppard to consider rebranding the career structure for carers, and let's get Des Lynam and Seb Coe to insist that every care home has its own gym with qualified instructors.

Let's requisition department stores like Peter Jones, have little cafés and mini shops on the ground floor where we crumblies can sell newspapers, snacks and our cast-offs to passers-by, and a helicopter pad on the roof to whisk us off to the opera or a concert.

We owe it to ourselves to start working on this now. Otherwise, when I get to 75 and am frail, pass me a carrier bag, and I shall put it over my head myself.