Britain’s forgotten million old people

Hundreds of thousands of older people are left lonely and without any regular social contact, Jeremy Hunt will say, describing it as Britain’s “national shame”.

Critics say that cuts in spending are contributing to poor care.

Critics say that cuts in spending are contributing to poor care.

Hundreds of thousands of older people are ignored by society, Jeremy Hunt will say on Friday, describing the loneliness of the elderly as Britain’s “national shame”.

A “forgotten million” older people are left lonely and without any regular social contact, the Health Secretary will say, adding that Britain has “utterly failed” to confront the problem.

In a speech to care groups, Mr Hunt will call for a change in social attitudes towards the old and urge younger people to change they way they treat their parents and grandparents.

A lack of concern for the elderly contributes to low standards and mistreatment in care homes, the minister will say, suggesting that as many as 1,000 incidents of abuse and neglect are taking place every week in residential homes.

He will also risk controversy by suggesting that families should be slower to put older relations into care homes, saying that families should learn from Asian countries where putting elderly parents into residential care is seen as a “last rather than a first option”.

The intervention comes a day after a government commission led by Alan Milburn said that the growing number of elderly people in Britain could bankrupt the welfare state unless better-off pensioners are stripped of some of their benefits.

Ministers distanced themselves from Mr Milburn’s advice, but he claimed many senior politicians privately back him.

Mr Hunt will call for a national debate about attitudes towards older people, suggesting that many are effectively frozen out of wider society as relations, friends and neighbours ignore them.

He will highlight figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness, which says that there are 800,000 people in England who are chronically lonely. Another five million say television is their “main form of company”.

“We know there is a broader problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society,” Mr Hunt will say.

“Each and every lonely person has someone who could visit them and offer companionship. A forgotten million who live amongst us – ignored to our national shame.”

He will also suggest that Britain can learn from countries such as China and Japan about how to treat older people. Mr Hunt’s wife is Chinese, and before entering politics he worked in Japan.

“In those countries, when living alone is no longer possible, residential care is a last rather than a first option.

“And the social contract is stronger because as children see how their own grandparents are looked after, they develop higher expectations of how they too will be treated when they get old,” he will say.

“If we are to tackle the challenge of an ageing society, we must learn from this – and restore and reinvigorate the social contract between generations. And uncomfortable though it is to say it, it will only start with changes in the way we personally treat our own parents and grandparents.”

Many Asian families choose to live with elderly relations instead of putting them into residential care. However, Mr Hunt’s aides insisted he is not telling British families to follow that example, and the minister will defend those who choose a care home for their parents.

“There are occasions where it’s right and necessary for older people to go into care homes and no family should feel condemned for taking that difficult decision,” he will say.

Mr Hunt will also use his speech to highlight concerns about the quality of care in residential homes. More than 112,000 cases of alleged abuse were recorded by English councils in 2012-13, the majority involving over-65s, Mr Hunt will say.

He will add: “Something is badly wrong in a society where potentially 1,000 such instances are happening every single week.”

Critics say that cuts in spending are contributing to poor care. The Coalition says the best response is more transparency and scrutiny.

A new chief inspector of social care is now in place, overseeing an Ofsted-style rating system for care homes.

Andrea Sutcliffe, the chief inspector, will “act as a champion of the people who use the services – the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief”, Mr Hunt will say.

From April, inspectors will start visiting 25,000 care homes to give them ratings that will then be made easily available to the public. “Just as we know how good all our local schools are thanks to rigorous, independent inspections by Ofsted, I want us all to know how good our local care is,” Mr Hunt will say.

Charities praised Mr Hunt for highlighting the plight of lonely older people, but said the Government should do more to address the problem.

Age UK said that cuts to local council budgets are “exacerbating the problem of loneliness” by forcing the closure of services like lunch clubs.

The charity added: “We can all do our bit to help fight the growing problem of loneliness by making time for older relatives, friends and neighbours. But the Government must also take action to address the huge gap in social care funding to help the millions of older people who are in urgent need of more support.”

The Campaign to End Loneliness said Mr Hunt was right to highlight the issue, but said ministers should improve public services for the elderly.