Amol Rajan: Shameful neglect of the elderly threatens our future

We need less vilification and more sympathy for care workers
  • @amolrajan

A few decades from now, we will look back on the start of the 21st century with shame and horror at our chronic national failure to care for the elderly.

I still think that the disgusting injustice of our education system, in which mediocre aristocrats can buy their way to a lifelong competitive advantage over the poor, is the most shameful thing about being British. But when you read reports of the conditions in our care homes, or talk to those who work there (often unpaid, or as immigrants hated by much of the press and public), you realise it's a close run thing.

Yesterday, the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People published a fine report in which, among other things, it claimed that our elderly are being "let down" by the standards of our care homes. That is putting it mildly.

In December, the excellent and respected King's Fund produced a shocking report, in which it claimed 900,000 old people in desperate need of care will receive no assistance this year. That number will rise to a million by 2015. Age UK says an extraordinary 1.8 million pensioners live below the poverty line, a million of them in "severe poverty".

Is one of that number your grandmother? And do you want to live in a country where a million suffering old people are effectively left to die? Across Britain, local authorities are cutting care for the elderly by 4.5 per cent this year, possibly the most pernicious manifestation of the austerity politics adopted by our government. Reversing those cuts would be a start, but a small one. We also need what my former colleague Johann Hari outlined in a superb manifesto last year: better pay and conditions for care workers; a different approach to anti-psychotic drugs; minimum standards of nutrition; fewer residents and more staff in most homes; cheaper care; fewer, better inspections; less vilification and more sympathy for care workers in the media; and, paradoxically, a retirement age of 70.

I hail from an Indian family. To Indian eyes, the idea of packing off your parents to a care home is basically unimaginable. Naturally, I can completely understand why for many families it is the right option; but if the English could drift slightly in the Indian direction, and try harder to make home care work, our old people would be happier.

Quite aside from our duty to those who are weak or have served our society, the elderly are living history. If we give up on them, we give up on our past. A country that neglects its past is disrespecting its present and jeopardising its future.