Grandparents can care for the young but who will care for the elderly

Tuesday June 26,2012

By Esther Rantzen

TEN MILLION people in Britain are without a voice, without an advocate, without rights of their own yet these 10 million have spent their lives earning the right to respect and advocacy and their voices desperately need to be heard. They are the Britons over 65 who have given so much to our country.

Many worked hard, brought up families, scrimped and saved during the war years and are still proud and uncomplaining. Many are being parents all over again – a recent survey suggested 25 grandparents a day quit their jobs to help their own children raise families.

In these tough times, with more new mums having to go out to work to support the family, it’s grandparents who are being relied on to look after the children and ensure continuity at home. Yet despite most willingly doing all they can for the family they remain unpaid, unrecognised and somewhat forgotten – not by their children and grandchildren but by society and, more specifically, the Government.

This is why I believe we need a minister to protect and speak up for them. On Thursday Parliament is to debate this issue and I believe it’s time to call for a Minister for Older People.

An impassioned plea from one of our great campaigners: Why it’s time that we had a Minister for Older People

There is not just the problem of the added burden of family support.

Week after week tragic stories highlight the vulnerability of elderly people. At 72, I am one and I know the way we live today means many of us are living alone. I am fortunate because I am mobile, so I can be busy and have enough money to go out and about to meet friends and family.

Others are not so lucky and failing health and tiny pensions mean they are living their lives in, as one told me, “solitary confinement”.

For far too many, loneliness becomes the everyday stuff of their lives. They wake alone, spend the day alone and go to sleep alone.

One gallant old lady told me: “When I wake, I just sit on my bed and wait for my death. I have nothing else to look forward to.”

Loneliness, according to a survey published last week by the University of California San Francisco, can be fatal. The lonely have a 49 per cent greater risk of death.

Depression means they no longer look after themselves, eat properly, take exercise.

Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking. We know from far too regular reports that if those living alone fall sick or break a limb they may endure hours of suffering before anyone finds them. That is what happened to one of my personal heroines, Annie Mizen, the merry, mischievous Londoner who became an unlikely TV star at the age of 86 when I interviewed her in a street market. To my great sadness, when she fell and broke her hip she lay for 16 hours on her hallway floor, unable to contact anyone and ask for help.

Ageism is alive and well and it hurts. In our hospitals stories of the treatment of older patients all too often demonstrate neglect and disregard. All too often the attitude is: “Oh well, she’s had a good run.”

One horrified daughter told me about her father contracting pneumonia in midwinter. He had a dread of hospitals but a locum insisted on calling an ambulance. Her father was bundled into it, freezing cold because he was wearing only pyjamas and the ambulance doors had been left open so long. He was then consigned to a bed in a ward beneath an open window. As he waved goodbye to her that night she felt he knew it was the last time she would see him alive. He was right. He died at dawn without her being called to be with him during his final moments.

A friend of mine was hospitalised with a heart attack at the age of 90.

When I visited and asked how he liked the food I was told by a friend that he had not been able to eat because none of the nurses helped him at mealtimes. He was blind. Nobody had asked if he could see.

“You are treating him as if he is a heart attack,” I said, shocked, “but he is a whole human being.”

“Yes,” said a male nurse, who didn’t seem to be busy, certainly not too busy to talk to me.

“But this is an acute ward” – as if in an acute ward the fact that an old man blind and unable to eat by himself is an irrelevance.

Care homes that split up devoted couples who may have been together more than 50 years, sheltered housing where old ladies are forbidden to keep the dog that provides precious company or the cat that lowers blood pressure, these are commonplace. The new threat to elderly well-being in these austere times is the sheer cost of providing enough care to keep old people independent and living at home and the even greater cost of looking after them properly in residential homes. How is the nation to find the money without a minister to champion older people?

When Alf Morris (now Lord Morris) became the world’s first Minister for Disabled People in 1974 he told me why he was able to achieve so much.

The title and the job gave him the right to go into every government office where decisions were made affecting disabled people’s lives and ask each minister and secretary of state what they were doing to improve disabled access and opportunities. That forced them to examine dusty files and put neglected ideas back on the agenda. Alf was the only minister thinking of disabled people as whole human beings.

It’s not that politicians don’t care. Paul Burstow, for example, the Minister for Care Services in the Department of Health, is deeply concerned about the loneliness of old people and determined to help.

But he has to balance a portfolio which also includes carers, chronic disabilities, and many other complex health issues and cannot venture into other territories that affect older people such as ageism in the media or the right to work.

The lack of one minister with an unwavering focus on the total welfare of old people may be why older voters have lost confidence in politicians.

Anchor, the provider of housing and retirement villages for 40,000 older people, was inspired by its residents to create a campaign, Grey Pride, in which 137,000 signed a petition for a Minister for Older People. A recent survey by Anchor revealed that two-thirds of older people believe MPs ignore their issues.

The problem is that those issues are fragmented across so many different government departments – such as housing, health, work and pensions, the Home Office (when it comes to older prisoners) – no one minister has the prime responsibility for old people.

Yet we elderly are a crucial sector of society. Crucial because we vote.

Crucial because we are growing in numbers. Crucial because we are a resource. And Thursday’s debate is a crucial moment in our history, when politicians can show that they do care, they do want to protect and support the older generation.

Now is the time for us to have a real fighting champion, our own minister.


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