Past caring

It’s rare that a member of this Government says something I applaud. But reading Jeremy Hunt’s speech on care of the elderly, calling on Britain to emulate the “social contract” between young and old found in other countries, I think he has a point. Of sorts.

I trudge the path through our village from home to school, day in, day out. I walk past terraces and bungalows which I know are occupied mainly by elderly people. I see them, sometimes, in their front gardens, or at the windows, or walking fearfully against the human flow of be-scootered and be-bicycled children streaming down the hill to school. I always nod, always smile, talk when I have the chance. I see one couple, frail as sticks, huddle at the bus stop; once, heartbreakingly, in bitter wind, sobbing against each others’ shoulder. On that day, of all days, my car was in the garage or I would have turned round gone to offer them a lift to wherever they were going.

A local befriending scheme, a co-operation between Neighbourhood Watch and Age UK has launched this month, compiling a database of people, like me, who can pick up a loaf of bread, or put out the wheelie bin, or, frankly, be a guaranteed smile and a little bit of human comfort for elderly or frail people who are isolated and alone more than ever when the bad weather comes. To me, it’s a great idea: knocking on the door of a stranger, no matter how good the intentions, seems ill-advised and more likely to worry and upset than reassure, but a partnering of need and help through trusted agencies solves many of those issues. No doubt this is the kind of thing Jeremy Hunt has in mind, and yet…

We heard last week about care visits being as little as 15 minutes a day; people forced to choose between someone making them a warm drink or being helped to use the toilet. People seeing no-one, talking to no-one, 4 million for whom the television is the main source of company. Befriending schemes are a good idea, but the problem, surely, goes most deeper.

For all that I agree with Mr Hunt’s invocation of a “social contract”, I can’t accept it from one whose government does all in its power to undermine the fundamentals which make such a contract possible. Whether right or wrong, paid work outside the home is valued over caring in our society. Childcare is approached as a problem which parents need to outsource in order to return to full employment. Payments to carers, who on the most basic of economic measures save the state billions by keeping ill, elderly or disabled loved ones at home, are under huge pressure, and initiatives such as the bedroom tax mean that such families are being squeezed beyond endurance. Withdrawing in-work benefits from those working part time hits people who use their “free” time to look after parents who might otherwise need to be moved into residential care or depend on those blink-and-you-miss-them visits from carers. As happy as I am to help with the befriending scheme, I can only do it because I have the luxury of being based at home, combining working with looking after my children, and I suspect my fellow volunteers will be the same or retired.

At an even more fundamental level, we have lost any concept of supporting communities. My own region has suffered tremendously from public sector job cuts, with 1000 additional job losses announced just this week at Middlesbrough town council. I have written before, and I still wonder a lot, about the true cost of savings made in wage spend. For every person given a job in an area of high unemployment, surely, you are not only supporting the local economy but allowing a person of working age to stay near to their extended family? If people are forced ever more to London and the south east for work (or, conversely, forced out of those regions due to benefit caps), how the hell can they step in to “take responsibility” for their elderly relatives, as Mr Hunt so piously implores?

If you want people to care, you have to stop encouraging a perception that caring = shirking. You have to let people take some dignity and security from their work, and place value on family and community as real, tangible virtues; not a way to save the Exchequer a few bob. Give that lot some consideration, Mr Hunt, and then we’ll talk social contract. Unless you’ve found a buyer for it first.

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