Is Britain equipped to deal with an ageing population?

Eldery sign

Living in Great Britain comes with a great deal of perks. Citizens of Great Britain are able to enjoy privileges including widespread access to education and universal public healthcare as well as freedom of speech. Another privilege that many give little thought to is the longevity of life that the majority of the population enjoy. For Britons, the chances of living a long life are good. According to the latest statistics the average life expectancy in the United Kingdom is 81 years, with the life expectancy for men averaging at 79.5 years and for women the average is slightly higher at 82.5 years. This ageing population is nothing new and it is not going anywhere.

A 2013 conference on the ageing population organised by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), provided some insightful statistics on the issue. At present, there are 10 million people in the UK that are aged 65 or over. Government projections predict that within twenty years, this figure will have increased by 5.5 million and, by 2050, the number will have nearly doubled to an estimated 19 million. The benefits of living a long life are evident- having a longer time to accomplish goals and building a close relationship with younger generations of family offer obvious advantages to many people. However, the ageing population places a considerable strain on public services. According to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), 65% of its expenditure goes to those over the working age and subsequently makes up 1/7th of its total expenditure. Additionally, the Department of Health (DH) estimates that the cost of caring for a person over the age of 85 is approximately three times more expensive than caring for a person aged between 65 and 75. Therefore, the strain that the ageing population places on public services is evident. This is not, however, a pensioner-bashing article. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the competency of the country’s services that aim to care for our ageing population. Is Britain equipped to deal with the ageing population or does more need to be done to ensure that our elderly are cared for in the best and most efficient ways possible?

Can the NHS deal with an ageing population and 'cradle to grave' care?

Can the NHS deal with an ageing population and ‘cradle to grave’ care?

The beginning of 2015 marked the beginning of campaigning for the general election that is set to be held on the 7th May this year. The NHS has taken centre stage in all of the main parties’ pledges and this is unsurprising given recent news of apparent NHS failings over the winter period. In 1945, when the NHS was formed, it boasted of its ability to provide medical care ‘from cradle to grave’. However, as the life expectancy continues to increase, its capacity to provide lifelong care has been questioned. At the beginning of this month, the NHS was reported to be in a ‘critical condition‘ after A&E waiting times slipped to their worst numbers in a decade. The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, cited the number of elderly patients needing hospital treatment as the ‘key problem’ that needed to be tackled. In particular, the delays have been blamed on the hold up in transferring elderly patients from hospitals into community care. The substantial cuts in the social care services over recent years has also increased the strain faced by the NHS. This is because there are not enough care home places or suitable care packages available for the frail elderly. Subsequently, many of them stay in hospital much longer than is needed and place a further strain NHS staff that are already, Mr. Hunt acknowledges, ‘busting a gut’.  However, he remains optimistic that Simon Stevens’, the NHS Chief Executive’s, five year plan is going to resolve many of these problems by increasing GP care in the community. Labour disagrees with this forecast and the shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham has directly blamed the Coalition Government’s budget cuts for causing the ‘crisis in social care’ that is ‘dragging down the NHS.’

As a result of these cuts in funding for the social services aimed to care for the elderly,  a greater pressure is being placed on the NHS. It seems apparent that this is a pressure with which the NHS cannot cope and it is having a detrimental impact on all patients, not least of all the most elderly. Sadly, long A&E waiting times are not the only way that the NHS are failing to provide care for the elderly. For many years now, there have been horror stories of elderly patients failing to receive essential care and as a result dying from seemingly minor afflictions. Moreover, there have been accounts of terminally-ill elderly patients receiving poor palliative care and living their last days with little or no dignity. Evidently, the NHS is failing to provide care for our elderly and at this stage is not equipped to deal with our ageing population. In part, this is due to the considerable strain that has been placed on NHS services and its staff. Clearly more needs to be done on the part of leadership in order to ensure the care and wellbeing of elderly patients.

The NHS, however, is not the only service in Britain that is in place to cater for our ageing population. There are services in place that operate with the primary purpose of providing care for the elderly. Residential and nursing care homes are an example of this type of service and it seems that, like the NHS, these homes are not equipped to deal with the ageing population. In April 2014, a BBC Panorama expose revealed the shocking abuse that had been taking place at one of England’s largest care homes, the Old Deanery in Essex. The programme revealed that staff had ‘taunted, roughly handled and slapped’ residents that were in their care. While the revelations led to one member of staff being sacked and a further seven suspended, it is clear that there are drastic failures in care. The incidences reported to have taken place at the Old Deanery are, thankfully, a rarity. However, this does not make it right and even rare cases illustrate how inadequate Britain currently is in dealing with the challenges of an ageing population.

Are we able to provide quality care to the elderly?

Are we able to provide quality care to the elderly?

Overall it is clear that the agencies currently in place to deal with the ageing population, namely the NHS and care homes, are failing to provide adequate care for the elderly. The blame for this, however, does not lie with the staff of either of these industries. The nurses and carers working in hospitals and in care homes are, for the most part, compassionate individual doing their best in an incredibly difficult working environment. They are often underpaid and understaffed. No, the blame certainly does not lie with the majority of hardworking carers and nurses. Instead, the blame can be firmly placed with Britain’s current and potential leaders. The ageing population is not a new trend, yet several governments have failed to take measures to tackle the problems that emerge as a result of the increasing life expectancy. Yet, as another general election looms, all of the parties are making promises to reform healthcare and provide more suitable care for the elderly. Will these plans prove to be long-term or are they just short-term promises laced with political rhetoric aimed at enticing voters? I hope it is the former, but fear the reality is that it is the latter. But, here is some final food for thought: while May 7th 2015 will come and go, the ageing population is here to stay. It is time that Britain works towards becoming better equipped to deal with the ageing population. The sooner it does, the better it will be for all of us involved.

By Megan Dibble, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.

Twitter: (@megan_dibble)

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