Two chilling points arise from Johann Hari's account of the last years of his grandmother (14 January). First, that it is by no means an isolated case; and second that in the current climate there is little chance of any financial help from government to remedy the situation.
This seems like an excellent opportunity to test the merits of David Cameron's "big society". Staff in care homes are overworked and underpaid. There needs to be a massive injection of volunteer help and support to enable them to do a decent job.
It has long been accepted that volunteers go into schools to help with reading. The same should be happening with care homes. Many elderly people living at home and in full possession of their faculties might be happy to give some time, if only in the spirit of "there but for the grace of God ..." Schools could adopt a care home in their area. Bankers could use some of their bonuses to provide needed facilities. With outsiders constantly around, any abuses should be quickly spotted.
The residents might welcome people with time to chat, read to them or play games. Staff could benefit from more contact with the outside world, and perhaps in the case of immigrant workers, help with their English. Schools could provide artwork to liven up drab surroundings.
Thank you to Johann Hari for spotlighting the scandal of care for the elderly .
The model for provision of residential care for the elderly is fatally flawed. Most care homes are run for profit, and the majority of their residents are funded by their local authorities. In Essex the local authority rate is £390 a week. This doesn't go far, paying for 24-hour care, especially when a slice of it is taken from the business as profit.
The system is propped up by higher charges paid by individuals who have prudently saved for their old age and are not eligible for local authority funding. For this higher charge, they will often receive the same poor level of care as those who are fully funded. It is little wonder that people prefer to spend their money while they are young, rather than scrimp and save for an uncomfortable old age.
Johann Hari is to be applauded for raising the plight of the elderly in care homes. Apart from this national horror, however, there is the equal scandal of keeping old people alive who have zero or negative quality of life.
My father, who is 91, broke his hip five years ago, and has wanted to die ever since. He is blind, half-deaf, doubly incontinent, extremely frail, and has some dementia. Determined never to go into a home, he spends most of his waking hours slumped, exhausted, over the table in front of him, unable to watch TV and too confused to listen to the radio or start a conversation. In the last couple of years he has taken to frequently calling out, day or night. "Lord help me, please!" His suffering is appalling.
He has repeatedly stated his desire for the Lord to take him so he can "have a good sleep", and if he was a dog we would grant his wish. Instead, because our society is so "civilised", we are forced to pump him full of pills every day so his misery can continue for as long as possible.
I am sure that many thousands of elderly people exist in a similar condition across the country.
Johann Hari's article on how Britain treats its old people is shocking indeed. However, it need not be so.
I had been visiting elderly people in homes on behalf of a local charity from 1984 and sometimes found just such conditions. In 1998 I saw a notice that lay inspectors for homes were needed. I applied to the local authority, attended a training course and from 1998 to 2002 visited 30 different homes. Every home was inspected twice a year by a professional and a lay inspector. One inspection was announced, the other not. I noticed a great improvement in homes over the next few years, particularly in respect of cleanliness and activities offered. I believe that this was in no small part due to the role of the lay inspectors.
Initially we were able to see patients in their rooms, where they could feel safe and free to talk about any problems they had. As health and safely regulations became stricter, we could only see patients in public areas (even though we had police clearance). This was a retrograde step, as nobody would complain about ill-treatment with the carers concerned listening in.
When the Care Standards Act was introduced in 2000 things started to change and by 2002 lay inspectors were no longer used. Official inspections continue but the officers have so many forms to fill in that they have little time for private chats to patients.
C G Clemmetsen
Newcastle upon Tyne
While I agree with Johann Hari about the deplorable state of some of our nation's residential homes, I would like to put in a good word for those homes where the care is excellent.
I checked out several homes before deciding which one would be right for my mother. I could often sense the atmosphere as soon as I walked through the door, and could reject some immediately. The one I eventually settled on was warm and friendly, and the manager showed concern about my mother's ability to look after herself.
A home assessment was carried out in my absence, as I live 250 miles away, and my mother was offered a place as soon as one became available.
When I went to visit, I often ate lunch along with the residents. Food was prepared daily from fresh ingredients. The manager was accessible for a confidential chat if necessary. I got to know many of the other residents and could see that they were well cared for and happy. I have nothing but praise for the attention my mum received while she lived at her care home in South Shields. This is the quality of care we should be aiming for everywhere.
Eaton Socon, Cambridgeshire
Richard Lyon (letter, 17 January) comments on Johann Hari's article on the treatment of the elderly in care by suggesting that Africans regard "the British way of packing off their parents to homes is unfathomably cold and uncaring".
While I am unaware of the precise life expectancy in his wife's homeland of Eritrea, I suspect it is significantly lower than in Britain, and Eritrean families are perhaps bigger. Here, parents, kept alive by the "miracles" of modern medicine, care and support, may live on into their late eighties and beyond with multiple age-related debilitating infirmities. Their children, in their late sixties and seventies may also be succumbing to the inevitabilities of age.
Like all services provided by third parties, the care of the old may be patchy, but unfortunately care in the family home is often not an option.
Well done Independent for putting Johann Hari's story on the front page. There are two big stories in Britain today: the first is that of people like Johann's grandmother; hard-working, caring people who want to live in a decent society that provides effective and humane support when they need it, whether as young unemployed or students, during illness or as an older person in need of care.
The second story is one of grotesquely greedy and irresponsible bankers, out of control and stuffing their maws with vast amounts of depositors' and taxpayers' money, offering two fingers up to the rest of us, while a weak, compliant government, more interested in representing business than people, looks on and does nothing.
The tragedy is that the former are paying the price, and are about to pay an even greater price, for the greed and corruption of the latter.
Stand by the Tunisian people
People power has asserted itself in Tunisia, but the critical issue now is whether human rights are to be built up in the wake of these momentous events.
The popular image of Tunisia as a sun-drenched holiday destination (tourism is its largest foreign currency earner) has always concealed a darker truth of repression and human rights abuse.
For years Tunisia has been a pressure-cooker society, with seething resentment at how the authorities have ruthlessly cracked down on any form of dissent. Political activists, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and student activists have all been at particular risk, though no one has been free from the danger of physical assault by state security officers or even imprisonment on trumped-up charges.
Now, with Tunisia at a historic crossroads, it is vital that the UK government and the rest of the international community press the interim authorities in Tunis to establish durable human rights institutions. A long-stifled civil society and opposition in Tunisia must be allowed to breathe. The new authorities need to prevent bloodletting and recriminations against Ben Ali loyalists, but must initiate investigations into the behaviour of the security forces during the protests as part of a wider effort at ensuring accountability for 23 years of human rights abuse.
When Tunisia slips from the news it mustn't also slip back towards repression.
Tunisia Country Co-ordinator, Amnesty International UK
What happened to our police?
As a child growing up in the 1950s I remember it being drummed into me, and everyone else at school, that our police force was different from those of other countries. Ours had protection of the citizen as its first priority, unlike other police forces, which began as guardians of property and the state, with the rights of citizens an unreliable add-on. That was why we should respect our police.
Moving forward 60 years, I am trying to make sense of recent events, particularly the demonstrations on student fees and the environmental campaigners whose trial has collapsed.
On the TV I watched student protesters in France walking through Paris with shirt-sleeved gendarmes walking alongside protecting their right to demonstrate peacefully and then disperse. In the UK I watched in growing disbelief as police in full riot gear treated peaceful groups, including children, as criminals, confining them and preventing them from dispersing.
The Government response concentrated solely on the embarrassment to the state from the separate violent action which the police failed to control, and ignored the breaches to the rights of the many citizens.
The conclusion has to be that the leadership of the police force now sees the guarding of property and the avoidance of embarrassment to politicians as its primary responsibility over and above the protection of citizens and of their rights.
Can I please have the police force I was persuaded as a child to look up to, or is it now too late?
You report that senior officers at the Metropolitan Police have formed a specialist and very successful unit, dubbed Operation Malone, to trawl through hours and hours of videos of the student "riots" to bring miscreants to justice.
Numerous demonstrators have reported misconduct by police officers at the demos, usually assault, but have no evidence to support their claims. No doubt we can rest assured that when the Operation Malone monitors come across evidence of illegal police violence in the vast amount of film they view, they will report it enthusiastically.
Ministers to get arbitrary power
A common thread links several letters published on your pages recently. The government's plans to sell England's forests to the highest bidder, the abolition of the Railway Heritage Committee and the Women's National Commission, to name just a few, will be delivered by the Public Bodies Bill.
Many of the advisory bodies being abolished cost peanuts because the experts who serve on them do it for the common good, not profit. Other bodies, such as regional development agencies, either generate or save money. Constitutional experts have expressed their concern about giving ministers powers to abolish public bodies without proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Clauses 17-19 cover the Forestry Commission. They give the Secretary of State powers to amend the 1967 Forestry Act, including managing, using, letting and disposing of forestry land. This means there would be no specific parliamentary debate on the sale of woodlands; the proposal strikes at the notion that only Parliament may amend or repeal primary legislation.
My union will be lobbying members of parliament on 9 February. I urge anyone who cares about our forests, or organisations which contribute to the public good, to visit or write to their MP asking them to oppose this dangerous and arbitrary bill.
General secretary, Prospect
End detention without charge
Your leading article on control orders (7 January)states that nine foreign nationals are subject to control orders. This is wrong. At least eight are British citizens.
Not that this matters. Whether it is British citizens or foreigners subject to control orders, control orders have to be scrapped. They are not particularly effective from a security point of view and are a major infringement on civil liberties. We must prosecute people, not subject them to indefinite detention without charge.
Tom Brake MP
Co-chair of the Lib Dem Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities Committee, House of Commons
Action for Prisoners' Families welcomes The Independent's leader about the effect of control orders on a suspect's family life. The family of a person on a control order also suffers a sentence, as Nigel Morris's interview with Ceri Bullivant so bleakly highlighted. There are nine people on control orders, but the families and friends affected would run to many more than that.
The Independent is right. Control orders should be scrapped. The Coalition needs to summon up the courage of its professed liberal convictions.
Director, Action for Prisoners' Families, London SW15
Proper labelling of the source of fish sold in supermarkets is important ("There's something fishy going on", 14 January). But we clearly need to widen our taste for other types of fish to reduce the strain on cod, tuna and salmon, and think before we buy. Consumer choice is a powerful influencer.
Perspectives on Americans and guns
The threat that decent US citizens fear most
On the question of the potential for violence in US politics, I recall that on a river cruise in the summer many of my fellow passengers were from the US. Over dinner the conversation drifted to the differences between US and British society. The question of the difference in our attitudes to gun ownership arose.
Our fellow diners were retired professional people who were comfortably off. Generally they supported the principle of gun ownership and said that they personally owned guns.
Were they worried about defending their homes against intruders or criminals? To my surprise they stated that they owned guns because they felt that they may, at some time, have to defend themselves against their own federal government.
I pressed them to give an example of the possible circumstances under which they felt they would feel at threat from their own government. Their example is very relevant to the recent events in Arizona. They believed that the current US administration was pursuing a socialist agenda and that they would oppose this, with force, if necessary.
These were in all obvious respects honest, upright people. I found it quite shocking that some citizens, in what is claimed to be the most democratic country in the world, feel so threatened by their own elected government that they would be prepared to consider bearing arms against it.
Quite clearly the questions of the potential for violence in the US goes deeper than any danger that a deranged college student might present.
Headley Down, Hampshire
I lived in Tucson for many years. A while ago a neighbour was reeling off a list of countries she was going to visit on an upcoming trip to Europe. "But we're not going to Britain," she stressed. "My husband is boycotting it because of its gun policy."
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