Alice Sachrajda is a researcher at ippr
A new report on social isolation in care homes has been launched by the Relatives and Residents Association (R&RA). The findings show that at least 40,000 elderly people in care homes in England are living in social isolation and that as many as 13,000 are completely ‘without kith or kin’ and receive no letters, calls or visits at all.
Responding to the report, care services minister Paul Burstow said:
“Caring for older people is everybody’s business. That is why the government is determined to strengthen community action. Citizen-led advocacy and community-based befriending services can make a big difference.”
But how effective can “citizen-led advocacy” and “community-based services” really be, particularly when the R&RA report refers to people who, largely, have dementia? On the one hand it is good to get communities engaged.
We need better awareness about the issues faced by older people in society, and particularly those living with dementia.
Encouraging communities to show more support and become better equipped for older people – particularly those with dementia – is an important step. But there are three reasons to be sceptical that “community action” holds all the answers:
• First, caring for older people already disproportionately falls on families and communities. Six million adults are already carers in the UK and they save the economy £87 billion a year - this is a burden already largely being carried by society not state. There are big problems with family members and volunteers burning out and being unable to cope.
• Second, there is currently an acute need for specialist care and advocacy services and dedicated training of NHS and social care staff. Dementia is a complex condition that can require specialist support.
• Third, the number of people living with dementia is set to rise over the coming years with estimates that there will be over a million people with dementia by 2025. The scale of the challenge is simply too big to rely on community action alone.
The “Big Society” may go someway towards alleviating the problems of social isolation, and it is likely to help in raising awareness about the needs of older people - but it shouldn’t be at the expense of specialist dementia care, advocacy and support; communities need support from government agencies if they are to play more of a role.