Research suggests as many as 500,000 older people are abused each year (Action on Elder Abuse), in the main by those supposed to be providing their care. Therefore, since the election in May 2010 up to one million older people may have been abused.
This information is not new, successive governments have been aware of this issue for many years but all have stopped short of introducing a coherent legislative framework to protect those most vulnerable in the care system. The coalition appear to believe in the power of ‘big society’ and service user and patient ‘choice’ in a market led health and social care system. My difficulty with this approach is it offers nothing new, it looks no further than the rhetoric of the ‘free markets’ beloved of every government since Thatcher. Nobody appears interested in thinking deeper and developing care from a philosophical perspective. Surely we need to understand what motivates us to care before we can reform the system ?
Historically societal attitudes toward older people have always been poor. In ancient Greece old age was portrayed as sad with historians arguing the Greeks love of beauty marginalised the old, especially women, sounds familiar! Cicero’s work De Senecute, written in 44BC, pointed to a variety of individual experiences of ageing, however acknowledging that for those who were poor and without mental capacity ageing is miserable. Sadly, all of this is still true today with research suggesting those at greatest risk of abuse and mistreatment are elderly women suffering from some level of dementia. This, along with the fact that the abuse and mistreatment of older people is a global issue identified by the World Health Organisation over a decade ago, suggests the issue extends well beyond political systems and party politics in the UK.
I’m with social contract thinkers Hobbes (1588-1679) and Locke (1632-1704) when they suggest as human beings we are inherently selfish and our individual pursuit of pleasure is destructive to society, suggesting the law can be used as an apparatus to modify such human desires. In my view the continued economic approach to health and social care has fed such selfishness, to the detriment of certain groups in society, i.e. older people, and we now require a strong lead from government.
Successive governments since Margaret Thatcher have relied on a consumerist approach to improving the quality of health and social care provision. The question is has turning vulnerable older people into consumers improved their care? For some yes, but for many of the most vulnerable older people in society, those older old people with dementia and who are frail, I’m not so sure. However, what it has done is hide the abuse and mistreatment of older people from collective view for the last 30 years, and led society to engage in debate that does not move beyond the financial. Research suggests this has had a detrimental effect on the moral health of society and academics are now suggesting the use of market mechanisms can change people’s attitudes and values, having a ‘corrosive effect’. Michael Sandel makes a pertinent point suggesting
‘It calls into question the use of market mechanisms and market reasoning in many aspects of social life, ……to motivate performance in education, health care, the work place, voluntary associations, civic life and other settings in which intrinsic motivations or moral commitments matter‘ (What money can’t buy, 2012, p122).
So what can we do? Helen Sullivan suggests ‘a big society needs an active state’. A useful first step would be for government to accept the Law Commissions recommendations on reforming the law in respect of Safeguarding Adults without delay. Secondly, abandon the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘free markets’ and develop a meaningful dialogue based on concepts such a honesty, morality and dignity from a philosophical rather than financial perspective. A new approach might be to have a dialogue that goes beyond party politics (and winning the next election) and begins by asking big society what it wants to afford, rather than politician telling us what we cannot afford.
I am sure many will say we cannot afford to reform the system on philosophical grounds, I would ask those individuals “can we morally afford not too?”