Forget 'grey power' - the old suffer abuse and neglect, as I know from my own family

She began to scream - and it emerged that her legs had been broken in three places for at least six months

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I never thought this would happen. Normally, when I hear religious figures speak, I splutter and gibber with rage. But this weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury - in a slow, sad sermon - condemned Western culture's "odd and unhealthy" attitudes toward the elderly. He argued that we increasingly respond to the old with "disgust", preferring to flee into the nubile arms of a "cult of youth".

I never thought this would happen. Normally, when I hear religious figures speak, I splutter and gibber with rage. But this weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury - in a slow, sad sermon - condemned Western culture's "odd and unhealthy" attitudes toward the elderly. He argued that we increasingly respond to the old with "disgust", preferring to flee into the nubile arms of a "cult of youth".

He's right. Of course, his speech was filled with superstitious talk of God and the afterlife, but there is a secular truth at the core of his speech. For all the talk over the past month of "grey power" and "political bribes" for pensioners, most of the issues that bear down on the frail backs of Britain's old people are virtually ignored.

Residential care is the worry that hangs over every old person like a toxic fog - but how often have you heard the quality of old people's homes discussed in this election campaign? The politicians' stump-list of public services - schoolsnhospitalsnpolice - never quite extends to care homes, even though half a million people are living there right now. Even prisons get more face-time.

The reason? We don't want to see. I have witnessed this in my own family. Six years ago, my grandmother could no longer look after herself following an accident, and she was moved into a home.

After a lifetime of constant, grinding work and raising three kids alone, my gran was suddenly exhausted and - I can't think of another way to put it - pissed off. She would cry on the phone, and (for the first time ever) complain about her dismal surroundings. It was a totally rational response. But several of my relatives - to my astonishment - suddenly retreated from her life. They said they found witnessing this "too much", and slowly, ever-so-politely disengaged.

Sometimes I ask them why, and beneath their self-justificatory blather I always sense a low fear of their own ageing. They look at my grandmother and they see their future.

We live in a Botox-hungry culture that sees ageing as an illness that need to be cured with jabs and toxins. Joan Collins strives in her seventies to look as shapely as Britney. Is anyone surprised that a culture like this stuffs old people far from view, and rams them to the bottom of their list of priorities?

This changed my family's behaviour - and the country's - in strange ways. When I decided to move my gran to a better (and more costly) home, I asked for help with the fees. One relative who earns a big wage offered £5 a week. It was less than he spends on Sky Digital. It seemed like a metaphor for the way we treat our old people: he could find more cash for Rupert Murdoch than his ailing relative.

Care homes only ever flicker into our political debate in the most unhelpful possible way, as a proxy for something else.

Sometimes they are hijacked by the right-wing press, and spending on the old is contrasted with another vulnerable group - asylum-seekers - rather than with (say) the dismal levels of taxation on the super-rich. Why not compare their holiday homes with closing old people's homes?

On other occasions, it is implied - as it has been by the Liberal Democrats in this election - that the real problem right now is that some old people have to sell their homes to pay for long-term care. I agree this is upsetting for the people involved, but this raises £1.1bn a year to spend on care homes. Taking this money away to maintain empty houses and middle-class inheritances is no solution.

That money - and much more - is desperately needed to tackle the real problem with care homes. Every parent knows about their school's teacher-to-pupil ratios. But how many people wonder about the nurse-to-elderly-person ratio in their relatives' homes? Yet this is the root of many of their complaints, and the biggest issue confronting the most vulnerable old people. Most elderly people in care are miserable because they don't get enough attention.

The women in my gran's old home would often say, "I just want somebody to talk to." But even the best carer in the world cannot natter if she has 12 people to look after, all needing feeding and taking to the toilet and medication and washing (and all for minimum wage). My grandmother often would have a cup of tea thrust before her by a harassed nurse who rushed out the door without a word; she wouldn't see anybody again for hours. Residents would sob as they recalled waiting for half-an-hour on the toilet for a nurse to become free.

But there are no targets to improve this ratio. Indeed - to my astonishment - the Government doesn't even know the national average. Nobody's counting. And this political neglect often leads to neglect in the homes. Last month, a survey by the Community and District Nursing Association found that one-in-four district nurses has witnessed old people being neglected or physically abused in the past year.

It happened to my gran. For a long time, she had been complaining of sore legs, and - since we knew she had arthritis - she simply carried on in agony. But one morning two years ago, I arrived and she said she couldn't stand. This was totally out of character, but the "carers" told her she had to get up. She began to scream. I insisted on fetching a doctor, and - after an X-ray - it emerged that her legs had been broken in three places for at least six months. If I had not insisted on medical help, she would have been forced to continue walking on broken legs for the rest of her life. If you doubt scenes like this (and worse) are happening across Britain today, look at some of the stories that have flickered into the press - always "news in brief" - over the past year.

Some are small psychological agonies: in South Wales, a care worker was sacked after he revealed that his residential home had been routinely wheeling naked and semi-naked old people into communal areas.

Some are far more extreme: undertakers in London were called to collect an old man from a care home and found that he weighed just four stone - and had toenails that curled to two inches. They believed he might have starved to death and called in the police, who are still investigating. (If you know of an old person who is being abused, call the national helpline now on 0808 808 8141.)

If you scan through the press cuttings, there seem to be dozens of elderly Victoria Climbies like this. John Winburne is the Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party. He believes the solution to a national epidemic of elder abuse is the introduction of a militant Ofsted for old people's homes. They should, he argues, conduct "random, no-warnings spot-checks across the country".

But if we are going to build up political pressure to demand that the Government acts on smart ideas like this, we have to come out of denial. The Archbishop is right.

It's time to bin the Botox, look honestly at your wrinkles, and demand more money is spent on your local care home before it's too late.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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