Take more care of the elderly

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The Independent Online

The Office of Fair Trading's study of Britain's care homes has uncovered substantial failings at the heart of this £8bn a year sector. What it has exposed is a morass of obfuscation and over-charging. Three quarters of the residency contracts analysed by the OFT contained "unfair or unclear" billing terms. Many elderly people are paying too much. A fifth of care homes charge residents who pay their own bills more than those who are funded by the local authority.

The Office of Fair Trading's study of Britain's care homes has uncovered substantial failings at the heart of this £8bn a year sector. What it has exposed is a morass of obfuscation and over-charging. Three quarters of the residency contracts analysed by the OFT contained "unfair or unclear" billing terms. Many elderly people are paying too much. A fifth of care homes charge residents who pay their own bills more than those who are funded by the local authority.

This cannot be allowed to continue. And it is utterly shameful that the managers of Britain's care homes have been taking advantage of older people in this way.

The OFT's recommendations on how to stamp out this practice are sensible. At the heart of the problem is the failure of care homes to be open about their charging structures. Residents should therefore, as the OFT suggests, be given the price of accommodation fees in writing before moving in. Local authorities should also establish a one-stop shop for information on care home provision - public, private, or voluntary - in the area. We would add that the Government should also be able to blacklist those homes that are found to be consistently ripping off their residents.

It should be noted, too, that over-charging is not the only way care homes mistreat residents. Many are cutting back on basic services such as cleaning and catering. Paul Rankin, the TV chef, has been spurred into starting a Jamie Oliver-style campaign to draw attention to the poor quality of food served in many care homes. There have also been disturbing reports of residents being physically abused. The Government must address all this, too.

The fact is, the whole sector is under great strain. Some 400,000 elderly people receive residential and nursing care in the UK's 15,700 homes. And there is a chronic shortage of places. The number of beds available has fallen by 13 per cent since 1997. As a result of our ageing society, it is estimated that the number of elderly people who require some sort of help will quadruple by 2050. Many thousands more will be faced with the prospect of entering under-resourced care homes in years to come.

This raises the issue of how to pay for all this. The concept of cheap long-term care for the elderly is largely defunct in Britain (although it still thrives in Scotland). Those who enter a care home may have to sell their homes or rely on contributions from their families. It is time the state made a firm commitment to provide free long-term care for the elderly - with no strings attached. As with the pensions crisis, this is an issue the Government will be unable to avoid in the coming years. And, likewise, it must be tackled sooner rather than later.

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