Families have stopped caring for older people…really? If only it was that simple Mr Hunt….

Jeremy Hunt suggests we need to renew the social contract between generations to support older people, has this ever existed though?

Many many families in the UK provide high levels of care and support for not only their older family members but also their adult children and grandchildren, is it really the case families have stopped caring. Commentators suggest given the complexity of family structures, their geographic proximity to one another, as well as to their places of work the relocation of responsibility for one another to a territorially defined neighborhood where communities come together with shared concern appears quite unrealistic in today’s society, especially since Ware also suggests ‘Real community activities are in decline‘ (2012, p. 89).

Hunt alludes to a return to previous patterns of care for older people based on a ‘golden age’, where older people lived in clearly defined neighborhoods within stable communities, and were consistently valued, respected and protected by family and the institutions that make up wider society. However, the World Health Organization (2002) suggest whilst traditionally family harmony has been assumed by governments in the care of older people, reinforced by philosophical traditions and public policy, the abuse and maltreatment of older people is actually a timeless phenomenon across the developed and developing world.

Was there ever a ‘golden age’ where older people were consistently valued, respected and protected by family and the institutions that make up wider society?

Although representations of old age and societal responses to older people have differed over time it could be argued old age has always been viewed as negative. In ancient Greece old age was portrayed as sad, with the Greeks love of beauty marginalizing the old. Although some commentators suggest the reality was more complex with the portrayal of older people in the classics as ‘both pejorative and complimentary’ (Thane, p.32). For Plato reverence toward old people was a guarantee of social and political stability, whereas Aristotle disagreed with such positive images. Cicero’s work De Senectute, written in 44 BC, points to the variety in individual experiences of ageing, acknowledging that for those who are poor and without mental capacity ageing is miserable, however, suggesting older people need to strive throughout their life to remain intellectually and physically able. This belief still underpins community care policy today in regards to older people.

Arguably one of the biggest flaws in the coalition’s approach to this issue is it does not appear to acknowledge its own role in supporting the negativity directed toward older people in its own use of discourse and language i.e. describing older people as a ‘demographic time bomb’ and ‘bed blockers’. This needs to be addressed.

This government is seeking to redefine the legitimate nature, and limitations, of the state in individuals lives. They appear to believe an in-active state will bring about the desired change in Big Society to take more responsibility for itself and others, however, arguably, this is built on a flawed understanding of the issues that face families today and the need for an active state to support families to support themselves.

From a European perspective research findings suggest older people’s experience of ageing in the UK falls behind that of many of its European counterparts, with the UK performing most poorly on indicators such as income, poverty and age discrimination (WRVS,2012).  The report states “the UK faces multiple challenges in providing older people with a positive experience of ageing, scoring poorly (although not always the worst) across every theme of the matrix” (WRVS, 2012, p.8).

 This provides a troubling vision of older people’s experience of ageing in the UK.

Older people’s experience of ageing in the UK can be improved, and it is all of our responsibility to try and achieve this.  However, we first need a coherent strategy to bring about the change desired by many who work with older people.  Government in the UK tend to address issues associated with an ageing population in individual ‘silos’.  Research from Europe suggests those countries taking a joined up approach where government consider how factors such as income, health, age discrimination and inclusion interact , the more successful policy approaches are likely to be to improve the experience of ageing.  However, any action needs first to take a long term approach and have a strong ethical foundation founded on a clear understanding of, and agreement to, promoting older peoples equality and human rights across the political divide.

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About digalpin

I gained my social work qualification from the University of Southampton and worked for 14 years in mental health, disability and older people services. I am currently a senior lecturer in post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University and am conducting research on government and societal attitudes and responses to the mistreatment of older people in health and social care provision for my doctorate. My views are my own.

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