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Why people are scared of growing older

British Red Cross

7 min read Partner content

Our elderly population is on the rise, and increasingly depends on the charity sector for support so the government needs to stop taking us for granted.

So much for peace of mind and tranquillity in one’s twilight years.

A major new study, commissioned by 75 organisations (including the British Red Cross), shows that one person in four is worried about receiving proper care in their old age.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why. News bulletins show elder abuse in care homes, bed-blocking, MRSA, over-stretched AE departments – all against a backdrop of government cuts.

Big demands

But bad as things are in the NHS, it’s the social care system that’s really starting to buckle under the weight of ever-increasing expectations.

A combination of budget cuts and a rapidly growing elderly population has effectively wiped out a quarter – yes, a quarter – of local authorities’ care budgets in just four years.

The specific figures are disturbing. Since 2010, social care spending has fallen by 12 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of those needing support has increased by 14 per cent. Whichever way you do the math, that’s not sustainable.

But this is the reality that the British Red Cross has to tackle every day. As one of the UK’s leadingvoluntary social care providers, we’ve seen a huge ramp-up in demand for our services in recent years.

Black holes

Across the UK, the Red Cross currently holds contracts with numerous local authorities and clinical bodies. Our speciality is offering low-level support that helps people at home following a hospital stay (or ideally, precludes the need for one in the first place).

Now, you might be surprised to learn that a charity is involved with this kind of work, but there’s a very good reason.

You see, we work right in the midst of two of the country’s biggest bureaucracies – the NHS and the social care system – where there’s a major problem. Namely, vulnerable people keep falling into administrative black holes at the transition point between the two.

This is where the Red Cross proves so invaluable. By acting as a kind of ‘glue’ between the two systems, we keep the links intact. We ensure that, for example, the 84-year-old pensioner discharged from hospital late on Friday afternoon won’t be left alone without care until Monday morning.

Every day, our staff and volunteers make scores of such small-scale interventions. And for people with no-one else to count on, they make a big difference.

‘Bespoke’ care

Our services also bring many specific benefits – a really good standard of personalised care, for one. To take a common example: when someone’s recovering from an illness, a statutory provider will generally go out and get their food shopping.

By contrast, a Red Cross volunteer will do the person’s shopping the first time, but then encourage them to take the lead on future trips. Why? Because that will help them grow stronger and regain their confidence. Sure, it takes longer, but we think it’s worth the effort.

This ‘bespoke’ care has yet another knock-on effect – it puts pressure on statutory providers to do more. Much as a homeowner might ruefully look at his neighbour’s pristine front garden and get out the lawn mower, the Red Cross’ positive example encourages others to raise their own game.

Also, it goes without saying, we work on a not-for-profit basis. In a nutshell, this is why the Red Cross is involved in social care contracts – to ensure vulnerable people get proper care that takes their dignity and personal needs into account.

Government cuts

But there’s a problem. Year on year, as swingeing cuts start to bite, we’re being asked to help more and more people for less and less money until our capacity is stretched to breaking point. (“To deliver a Harrods service for an Aldi price”, as one charity wag put it.)

Of course, local authorities want to provide the best possible service for vulnerable people, but cuts mean their expectations of what can be delivered – and for how much – have become increasingly unrealistic.

And when our volunteers start struggling to meet demand, then that high standard of care focussed on each individual’s needs – the reason we’re doing this in the first place – inevitably suffers.

This is a dilemma that the Red Cross, and many other volunteer organisations, currently face. On the one hand, we’re determined not to stand by while someone in crisis suffers. Helping such people is hardwired into our DNA: it’s why we exist.

But there’s a nagging question that’s causing many a furrowed brow throughout the voluntary sector just now: at which point does helping statutory providers reach vulnerable people end, and papering over the cracks of government cuts begin?

Think about it. If the Red Cross keeps on striving to meet excessive – and sometimes impossible – demands, there’s only one logical end-point. We’ll eventually become little more than an unpaid government subsidiary plugging gaps caused by under-funding.

This isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it might sound. You might not know this, but the NHS alreadydepends on the Red Cross to manage short-term wheelchair loans on a national basis.

And now it seems we’re gradually being pushed into accepting a bigger slice of the social care pie as well.

‘Sticking plaster’

Following the latest cuts to health and social care budgets, local authorities are desperate for help from the voluntary sector – and who can blame them?

Faced with huge holes in their bank balances, they’ll take whatever is on offer. But voluntary organisations need to tread very carefully here.

The Red Cross, in particular, has far too many other priorities both in the UK and overseas to get bogged down in this particular quagmire.

Indeed, we’re only doing so much work in this area now because we see the whole system failing – badly, in places – and won’t just stand idly by and watch. But news reports last week promised even more cuts on the way. Eventually, something will have to give.

At the moment, the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations act like a sticking plaster, helping to hold the whole crumbling edifice together.(Although we mustn’t forget the huge role played by unpaid carers, who collectively give millions of hours every week to look after loved ones.)

According to the Kings Fund, there are currently around three million health and social care volunteers across England. Imagine if all of them spontaneously decided to find another interest tomorrow? It’s a scary prospect.

Action needed

Which brings us back to our starting point: just why are thousands of people across the UK scared of growing older? They’re not paranoid, just realistic. They see a creaking social care system struggling to accommodate a growing elderly population and wonder what might be waiting for them further down the line.

Currently, it feels like we’re all stuck in a leaky lifeboat with a bucket that just isn’t quite big enough to scoop out the water as it comes in.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we’re taking on water and sinking. And now the government has told us we’ll have to use a smaller bucket. People are right to be worried.

Ultimately, the only way to truly tackle this social care crisis is through a decently funded government response. As one newspaper commentator recently said: “Charities may be dealing with the consequences, but this is a problem only politics can solve.”

Make no mistake: the Red Cross is ready to help – but our role should be to complement the statutory sector’s work, not subsidise it.

The government needs us. So it needs to stop taking us for granted.

More on our support at home service.

Home alone: why pensioners need our help following a hospital stay.

Find out how the Red Cross helps ease the burden in busy AE departments.

Need a wheelchair? Why the Red Cross may be your best chance of getting one.


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