Jeremy Hunt MP is the Secretary of State for Health.
A week ago, police in Edinburgh had to break down the door of a top floor flat because it had been so long since the door had been opened, and pick their way through mounds of unopened post, to reach the body of a man who may have been left undiscovered in his flat for up to three years. This is a shocking wake-up call about the plight of the lonely elderly in our midst.
By 2020, we will have a million more over 70s, one third of them living alone. Of course the health and social care system must do a much better job of looking after them. But so, too, must all of us as citizens.
Look at the number of ‘lonely funerals’. In England there are around 2,900 council funded funerals every year – or eight every single day. These are people who die with no relative or friend available to pay for the funeral. Do they really have no living relatives or friends? Or do we need to confront the uncomfortable truth that it could be something even sadder: that our busy, atomised lives mean that too often we have become so distant from relatives and neighbours that we don’t even know when they are dying.
In Japan nearly 30,000 people die alone every year, and they have even coined a word for it, kodokushi, which means ‘lonely death’. We don’t know the number of lonely deaths we have in Britain – but, according to Age UK, a million older people have not spoken to anyone in the last month.
A Chinese proverb states that ‘an elderly person at home is like a living golden treasure’. At the moment around 40 per cent of Chinese older people live with their children but in Beijing they have a policy to increase that to 90 per cent by 2020. China even passed a new ‘Elderly Rights Law’ against ‘neglecting or snubbing elderly people’, which mandated that people should visit their elderly parents often, no matter how far away they live, with fines or prison sentences as penalties.
Western traditions would rightly resist state interference on this scale. But France too passed an elderly care law in 2004 requiring its citizens to keep in touch with their elderly parents. They did this after a heatwave left 15,000 elderly dead, many of whom were left for weeks before being found.
Other countries are also finding solutions. In Italy they have a well-established practice of ‘badanti’ – a system of au pairs or ‘nannies for grannies.’ They provide the majority of elderly care in Italy and take care of older relatives whilst busy parents go out to work.
In the Netherlands, they’ve introduced a different type of au-pair system for elderly people, where students are offered rent-free accommodation in nursing homes in return for spending at least 30 hours a month with some of the elderly residents.
We are lucky to have six million wonderful carers and some remarkable charities. But individual examples should not mask the stark fact that one in ten older people have contact with their family less than once a month, and four million people say TV is their main source of company. Despite many local instances of innate British kindness and decency, the national picture is far from kind and far from decent.
We should also recognise the hard-headed economic arguments that impact on this debate.
All families have different needs and situations, and for some residential care will be right. But carry on as we are and we will need 38,000 more care home beds for older people by 2020 – the equivalent of nearly 20 new care homes opening every month for the next five years. It isn’t going to happen.
Perhaps as a result, the latest ONS figures show an increase in multi-generational households. But with only 16 per cent of older people living with their children in this country compared to 39 per cent in Italy, 40 per cent in China and 65 per cent in Japan, we are starting from a low base.
I have said before that I want Britain to be the best country in the world to grow old in.
But the government – nationally or locally – cannot do this alone. Passing legislation on this issue is not the British way, but we do need attitudes to change, so that it becomes as normal to talk about elderly care with your boss as about childcare. Family planning must be as much about care for older generations as planning for younger ones.
We need a wholesale repairing of the social contract so that children see their parents giving wonderful care to grandparents – and recognise that in time this will be their responsibility too.