My 82 year-old mother spent the weekend setting up a twitter account. She gardens and learns French and, like most of her generation, is a long way from the vulnerable, querulous stereotype of an old person. It is possible, though, that she may come to need care at some point – and then not only she, but all our family will feel vulnerable. As Age UK points out today, a £500 million funding gap has opened up in social care, with the Coalition spending half a billion less than necessary just to keep services at the level they were at when they came to power.
If my mum needs care, she will probably have to sell her house (which she, born in the East End and brought up in a slum, considers she is holding in trust for her children and grandchildren). Like millions of others, she still runs the risk of receiving half-hearted, underpaid social care that fails to grant her dignity, respect and quality of life. She is resourceful and self-reliant, but it is impossible to plan ahead for any of this, to insure against the possibility you might need care. She may not meet eligibility criteria. She may come up against funding shortfalls. The whole thing is an unknown – and, increasingly, what safety net there is has huge holes in it.
There are millions of us facing this uncertain future, and we need to do something about it. In pre-industrial economies, when work and family were closely integrated, care of the elderly was part of household work and brought its own rewards. It was only when industrial economies started to measure people by how much output they could generate in factories that old people became a drain on the system, surplus to requirements. We still live with the mental hangover from that: all that matters to dignity and status is whether you can work – with that work defined in narrow terms.
Increasingly, though, post-industrial economies are directed towards improving quality of life and relationships rather than simply allowing us to have more stuff. In this context, care of the elderly makes economic as well as moral sense, generating wellbeing, reinforcing communities, creating social capital. Helping older people with things they find difficult can integrate them into society and allow them to make contributions, to be seen not as discarded but as valuable.
Care may not seem at first sight to have much to do with bankers’ bonuses, but they are both evidence of an economy stuck in stupidity. A growing body of research shows that economies thrive best when they are driven by cooperation and collaboration. The junking of old people, like preposterous bankers’ bonuses, sends the message that we’d all better look out for ourselves. Do we really want to live in a society in which getting on involves trampling on other people?
So there are practical reasons for looking at care differently, quite apart from the (overwhelming) moral ones. Without cooperation, we will see less innovation, less economic sophistication, a diminished quality of life. We should stop thinking about care as a service bestowed by the competent on the incompetent and see it as an investment in cooperation and fairness that will have a beneficial impact on all of us.