Dave Anderson: Decent health and social care are vital - but how do we deliver it?

Blaydon MP Dave Anderson on why the need to integrate health and social care is becoming vital

One in three people over 65 will die with dementia and many more will know someone with dementia. Yet funding to find a cure is nothing like as high as it could or should be
One in three people over 65 will die with dementia

The good news is that people are living longer. The bad news is that our health and social care systems, designed for different times, are not coping well. The worse news is that the mismatch has been exacerbated by aggressive austerity measures by this now fading coalition government.

We’ve all seen the stories about huge pressures on Accident and Emergency departments where people have to wait longer to see a medic or be admitted to hospital.

This is often blamed on so-called bedblockers, a term that implies that the often elderly people in hospital beds are behaving selfishly.

But the problem is that they have nowhere else to go, either because they have no family to take on the burden or because social care, provided by increasingly under-funded councils, has failed them.

The respected Age UK organisation has issued a damning report which outlines the crisis in social care. Their overall finding is that there is rising demand for social care but national spending on such services for older people has fallen by £1.1bn or about 14% since this government came to office.

Ten years ago, 15% of elderly people received social care but this has been steadily dropping and is now under a tenth. Yet the number of over 65s has increased by 16% in that time. Age UK also reckons that there are nearly a million pensioners with unmet needs.

The report digs deeper into the numbers, showing, for instance, catastrophic cuts in day care places, meals on wheels, and home adaptions. It finds that a third of all pensioners find it difficult to look after themselves - getting out of bed, washing themselves, going to the toilet, getting dressed, taking their pills, or cooking. Such support should always be delivered with respect and dignity.

Age UK describes a care system in calamitous and quite rapid decline. And it will get worse because in 15 years time a quarter of pensioners will be childless and the safety valve of family support will not be available for them.

An Institute for Public Policy Research report estimates that this voluntary care system, which saves billions, will start to unravel in two years because there will be more pensioners in dire straits than adult children able to lend a hand. As a care worker in the 1990s, I know that helping people keep clean, warm and well-fed may be a less than glamorous task but one that is crucial to making the most of their longer lives. It also saves huge amounts of money in allowing people to stay in their homes rather than hospitals.

We should focus on the human costs of these failures but also put real effort into integrating social care and health services. There will be a start-up cost but there should also be greater savings in the longer term as well as increased well-being and economic activity.

The need to integrate health and social care is becoming vital to help keep health costs down and to match increasing life expectancy, as well as repaying the huge debt we owe to elderly people who have built our economy.

Of course, new health and social care means new economics too. I have argued for public investment, which is easier now that interest rates have hit rock bottom. This could kick start the economy out of faltering growth and generate real job creation and rising incomes, as well as the tax revenues that we can use to resource and reform our public services.

But integrated health and social care of good quality - more than a 15 or even 5 minute visit by an overworked care worker - requires political will and that means that people making their views known. It is why I support the Grey Pride campaign, initiated by Anchor - the largest not-for-profit provider of care and housing for older people - and which urges the appointment of a Minister for Older People. Decent health and social care should be a priority and requires a deep national debate about how we deliver this vital need and, whether, ultimately, we are prepared to fund it properly.

Dave Anderson is the Labour MP for Blaydon

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