Looking after granny: the crisis of elderly social care

Sunday 14 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 1-3Modern family

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Millions of families in this country are confronting the issue of how to care for granny or granddad, mum or dad. The fact that people live far longer than in the past is a wonderful development, but social and health provision is not equipped to cope at the moment. While we all aspire to independent living as long as feasible, the challenges of ageing create constant dilemmas about whether, for example, our loved ones would be better ‘in a home’ than staying at home. Costs and quality of care, a dread of dependence and dotage, haunt the debate about how we look after an ageing population, turning it into one of the biggest social questions of our time.

It’s a question that, up until now, the government seems to be failing to answer. Over the past few years, there have been cuts to local services, damning inspections, abuse scandals and revelations about underpaid care workers, not to mention the so-called ‘dementia tax’ debacle during the last general election. Social care has undoubtedly been forcibly moved
up the political agenda. The Department of Health has been renamed the Department of Health and Social Care, and the government has ordered an Adult Social Care green paper to be published. But many argue that rebranding exercises and managerial reforms won’t solve the crisis – we need to come up with new ideas about how to improve the lives of older
people and their families.

In fact, there are plenty of innovative and alternative ways of providing elderly social care that are already in practice. Initiatives like Homeshare (where renters share with a homeowner who needs help to live independently) or Community Circles (where volunteers support individuals to get out and about or to achieve personal goals) encourage generational relationships. There are also schemes that challenge institutional arrangements, like Apartments for Life in the Netherlands, and care homes which join with nurseries for intergenerational care in Singapore, the US and recently the UK, too.

New technology could also prove useful in ensuring a better quality of life for an ageing population. ‘Fall-prediction carpets’ promise to reduce falls (and some of the consequent hospital admissions) by a quarter. And robots, like the pet robot MiRo, could aid mobility, self-care or simply provide companionship.

Despite these new ideas, underperforming care homes and inadequate home care continue to dominate the news. While new technology and unorthodox arrangements might prove an exciting prospect, are we in danger of falling for hype about smart homes or innovations in living arrangements that do little more than ape traditional family structures and are not as radical as headlines imply? Regardless, many families feel that their hands are tied when it comes to looking after elderly relatives. Often families are forced to decide between trusting poor-quality, state-provided care homes, investing in expensive private care or reorganising family life around full-time care at home.

Do we need to think differently about social care? Is there a future for traditional care homes, or should people be supported to live independently? Should families and communities take on more of the ‘burden’ of caring for their older members? Or is investment in new technologies and philosophies about social care the answer to this crisis?