Leading article: Older people deserve much better

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We led yesterday's Independent with Johann Hari's harrowing account of his grandmother's 10-year peregrination through what passes for a care home system.

As Hari wrote, it was only at the fourth home she moved to that standards of comfort and care were just about acceptable. At one home, her health was neglected to the point where she was forced to walk on legs too damaged to carry her. At another, the duty assistant did not know where basic, and potentially life-saving, items were stored.

And this, it must be stressed, is what goes on in the better homes. When his grandmother first needed care, Hari visited – and rejected – those where he found the all too familiar picture of elderly people sitting blankly in rows in poorly cleaned and maintained accommodation. Tragically, by no means everyone has a relative or friend with the commitment and persistence to ask essential questions and make regular checks. It is not unusual for a family simply to be given a list of local care homes and told to sort things out themselves.

Care for elderly people in this country can be good; more often it is inadequate; sometimes it is scandalously bad. A rich, developed country, such as ours, should be able to provide decent care for its older residents. Most, like Hari's grandmother, have worked hard and paid their taxes, in the expectation that help would be provided at their hour of need.

The system, such as it is in England, penalises the provident, while failing to guarantee the consistently high standards everyone has a right to expect. As Hari's experience shows, identifying and then keeping tabs on even a satisfactory care home is no easy task. Families are essentially abandoned in a jungle of brochures and unenforced regulation. Astronomical fees seem to bear no relation to the care provided or the low pay of most staff.

As the number of very elderly people grows, the clamour for change will surely grow. What is needed, though, is more impatience now. Today's old people should not have to wait.

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