Jan 20, 2014

Care of the Elderly: Who's counting? And how?


The European Commission states that ageing is one of the greatest social and economic challenges of the 21st century for European societies. Here in Britain, between 2010 to 2030, we will witness a 50% growth in people aged 65+ - with the number reaching 80+ rising at an astonishing rate. This presents both social and economic implications.

Economically speaking, the care required for a person aged 85+ is estimated to be around three times that for a someone aged 65 to 75, but the social implications are also enormous. Being able to provide the right level of care for the elderly is proving exceptionally difficult, as borne out by shocking revelations in 2013 about below-par care of the elderly within care homes. Indeed a recent survey of 2,000 adults by Populus Data Solutions revealed fewer than 1 in 4 adults willing to consider moving into a home if they became frail in their old age, with fears of being badly treated by staff cited as their number one concern.

The level of care outside of homes is also a concern. Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said Britain should be ashamed of the way it treats grandparents, with more than half of over-75s living alone, and 5 million older people saying TV is their main form of 'company'. Yet, scientific studies have proven over and again that lack of social connection and interactivity can be extremely detrimental to health. The NHS has responded to this situation by crying out for an army of 'Good Samaritans' to look in on lonely elderly neighbours and make sure they are coping this winter. It has also issued a call for 100,000 volunteers to sign a pledge committing to visit older people and check they are warm and have everything they need.

Sometimes a holistic and truly pragmatic approach is needed: Today, the primary care title, Pulse, reports that Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) are paying for home insulation and paying off patient debt to help improve health. NHS Oldham CCG will spend 200K this winter on new boilers and insulation for 1,000 homes, plus 'help with debt reduction' so that local people can keep warm. It estimates this will save 300K a year in reduced hospital admissions and social costs.


Meanwhile, welfare technology is becoming more prevalent in institutional care settings, and the gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down to technology to help manage this crisis. For example, intelligent aids such motion sensors placed around the home and in clothing, remote vital sign monitors, communication technology and tracking devices. Such devises may be available, but they're costly, and progress is slow. However there are promising reports: In Italy, the Bolzano project in the small [and wealthy] city of northern Italy involved IBM fitting a small group of elderly residents' homes with sensors that report information back to a central database which is closely monitored by the city. From there, care workers can be dispatched when needed. City planners foresee a 30% saving in assistance and care costs, and the feedback from residents has been positive, with one stating, "It feels like I have a friend at home watching over the house".

Increasing investment in technology seems to be one way we are moving forward in order to tackle this issue, but technology can never truly replace human contact. As humans, we are hard-wired to need company, the human touch, whatever our age. Meeting this most basic of needs will surely remain one of the biggest social challenges of our time, and all of us must step up to tackle it.