If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, Scotland must surely be found wanting.
That 60,000 elderly people will spend Christmas alone is an indictment of us all – of the world we have created, in which people move hundreds or thousands of miles away from families to get work, of the breakdown of familial ties that were once the bedrock of communities, of our failure to readjust to changes in the way we live to take account of those in their twilight years.
Many of these societal changes have been for the better, but the current “epidemic of loneliness” reported today by Age Scotland may be one of the unanticipated, adverse side-effects.
The charity reports genuinely heartbreaking cases of elderly people who feel trapped in their homes, who watch television because it is “lovely to hear human voices” and is their only source of company, or who sleep the day away because there is nothing else to do. Some stay in their homes for weeks on end.
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With their children working in full-time jobs and often far away, elderly people may have little choice but to go into a care home if they become unable to fend for themselves. But a new report by the Competition and Markets Authority warns of a £1 billion shortfall in the funds necessary to provide a reasonable standard of care, stressing that the current system is “not sustainable”.
Amid this growing financial crisis, cutting of corners by homes is perhaps inevitable, but the CMA found that some care home residents do not dare to complain about unsatisfactory living standards for “fear of reprisals”.
Desperate loneliness in one’s own home or a culture of fear in a care home hardly seems like much of a choice.
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Politicians, employers and society at large have increasingly recognised the need to give employees time off when they have children, a change belatedly made following the influx of women into the workforce in the years after Second World War.
Perhaps greater consideration now needs to be given to staff who have an elderly relative. As the Scottish Conservative’s Shadow Health Secretary Miles Briggs says, the Age Scotland report is an “upsetting and serious piece of research” that is “something we all need to help address”. Some radical thinking may be required, not just by politicians, but all of us.