What is a good home? For an elderly family friend of mine, it is an academic question. In her eighties, weakened by a stroke and recently widowed, she is now in a privately-run home for vulnerable old people. The cost: £5,000 per month.
It is a huge amount of money, far more expensive than a plush hotel. Quite soon her modest savings will be exhausted. Then she, or rather her children, will have to sell her house in order to extend her stay. Neither they nor she have probably decided to think about what happens when the proceeds from the house sale run dry too.
This is not an uncommon scenario. It has been brought home to me by its proximity, but it is one played out across Britain on an increasingly regular basis. Sometimes the old person is simply too infirm to be cared for by relatives. Often the children are too busy working to make a commitment previous generations took for granted.
But it is not all about modern sons and daughters who baulk at the idea of ‘taking Mum in’. Thanks to improvements in geriatric medicine, Mum is being kept alive much longer than once was possible. An estimated 75 per cent of our over-65s will now need some sort of care during their lifetime and today this thorny subject is again back in the headlines. No fewer than 85 groups have written to the Prime Minister demanding urgent action.
As a mother-of-six I have often wondered whether my big brood will increase my chances of free care in my twilight years. And, if one of them is left to play the ‘Cinderella’ child, will that be fair on her (and research suggests it tends to be daughters who get lumbered!).
These questions are partly answered in a study by a British MP, Chris Skidmore. He was written a report for the Free Enterprise Group in which he says it would be better for everyone – the taxpayer included – if family members were paid to provide social care.
Under the Government’s existing policies, councils are responsible for ensuring that local residents who need care are allocated “personal budgets” to spend on home help, specialist equipment, or other services. The average weekly bill, for a privately-run home is about £500, considerably less than the deluxe home where my friend is staying, but still a big hit for a local authority.
By contrast, Mr Skidmore calculates, a typical allowance given to a family caring for a relative would be something more akin to £350 a week. Across the country, he says, the savings would run into the hundreds of millions.
Would the middle-aged children of my elderly friend consider giving up work so they could provide round-the-clock care for their octogenarian mother? I doubt it. Both do well paid jobs and, though it can be dispiriting watching their inheritance disappear, they know their mother is well-cared for while they continue to provide for their own families.
Yet there will be, doubtless, many people who want to care for their ailing parent and would gladly do so, particularly if the state helped. It could profoundly change the nature of home-life for thousands of Britons; allowing the restoration of inter-generational bonds which many of us have watched wither.
The evidence from Germany and Holland, says Chris Skidmore MP, is compelling. Putting cash directly into the hands of families to provide “informal” care is more efficient than diverting funds through councils.
However, the chances of Mr Skidmore’s plans coming off are not good. Philosophically, the State in the UK is not keen on paying family members to look after each other, even if that means contracting out that care at great expense. The State, for instance, would rather subsidise private childcare, rather than recognise – financially – that parents do quite a good job of bringing up children. In other words, if the state started paying children to care for their parents, it might find it hard to demur from calls to start paying parents to look after their children!