The problem with nursing homes lies in our uncaring work culture | Ros Coward

Moving my mother into a home wasn’t easy, but Jeremy Hunt’s Chinese peasant model is not the answer

My mother went into a nursing home earlier this year. Contrary to Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that people casually consign elderly relations to care homes rather than caring for them themselves, it was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever taken. Judging from others I met in the same situation, my feelings were typical. No one takes these decisions lightly. As it turned out, my mother’s move was far less painful for her than for her family. At the care home she was embraced by a loving and stable staff who worked hard to settle her in. By contrast we had to discover fast just how little support, financial or otherwise, there is for our elderly people.

Decisions about putting a relative in care are often taken, as in my case, after a critical illness, with the hospital telling you simultaneously your relative needs care and that she is bed-blocking. At this crucial moment relatives find themselves faced with major financial decisions. If an elderly person owns their home they have to sell it to fund care. If you don’t have money or property to sell, the “cheaper” social services-approved homes are your only option.

The government has said it plans to ease things for relatives by allowing them to enter into “a deferred payment scheme“: relatives can borrow care-home costs from the council and sell the family home later. Good luck to you with that one. We applied to this scheme via Wandsworth council, which is meant to be pioneering it. No one knew how it worked, there was no one to deal with it and eventually, after three months of wasted time, meetings and frustration, we abandoned the attempt.

Of course, Hunt is right to highlight the wider tragedy of being old and lonely. Many old people have suffered family bereavements, or are living far from their families. But this isolation also results from social as well as attitudinal forces. At the forefront is a work culture that makes no proper allowance for caring, not even for children, let alone elderly parents. My own workplace has vague policies about not discriminating against those who care for elderly people. But that doesn’t translate into any real recognition of how this role affects performance.

Nor is there much choice about where we live: we go where the work is. This makes Hunt’s comparison with China glib. There may be more respect for older people there, but the health secretary is drawing on the old peasant model, where grandmother pods beans in the corner of the yard. Contemporary Chinese society is undergoing convulsions more drastic than those that produced our own atomised society. Those of the generation resulting from the one-child policy are finding themselves responsible for several grandparents. Far from being available to look after them, they are studying and working abroad. Already, middle-class Chinese people employ lower-paid domestic servants to live with grandparents, while elsewhere mega-care homes are being planned.

Our society has an additional problem of longevity. We are now able to keep elderly people alive who are suffering multiple and complex medical conditions. These people are often housebound and barely mobile, adding enormously to the dangers of isolation.

As a society we need to feel more compassion for elderly people, to talk to them in shops, help them across the road, sit with them when they eat alone in pubs. There are people who do this, but not enough. But social forces require social solutions, such as adequate and unrushed care support provided at home, or lunch clubs and day centres and transport to get people to them, and dedicated social workers and more support, both moral and financial, for those who go into nursing homes. These cost money and need political solutions.

In a society as complex as ours, nursing homes shouldn’t be the “last resort” with all that that implies but well-supported, pleasant places where elderly people can be safe and, dare I say it, happy. The irony for me in Jeremy Hunt’s speech is that now my mother is settling into a kindly home, the one thing I don’t have to worry about any more is her being lonely. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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