First published in the Yorkshire Post on 31st March 2020.
By Peter Hodkinson, Managing Director of Westward Care, Chair of Leeds Care Association and Fellow of Skills for Care (the national workforce organisation for social care.)
If recent days have highlighted anything, it’s that we humans are social beings with a need not to be isolated. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, it has been acknowledged throughout society that there’s a health and social care sector challenge.
The world is changing. More of us are living longer, sometimes on our own and/or with a health condition, and there are more older people with complex needs in society. But tackling the challenges of an ageing society is hindered by the negative language used about older people.
There’s a sense of fear and hopelessness associated with the language used, that is unhelpful for older people and their loved ones when they’re entering a new phase of life. The later stage of life, even approaching the end of life, is still a new chapter and there is a lot to be cherished and celebrated.
At Westward Care we provide homes for 175 residents across three locations in Leeds, with as many different needs, experiences and personalities as you would find living in any community. So many of our residents say, once they have made the move, that they wish they had chosen to do so sooner. They talk about “a new lease of life” and they want to stay active in body and mind for as long as possible. We talk about them moving home, not “going into”, or being “put into”, anywhere.
The language is a throw-back to a time when institutional care was very different, when the state commissioned most of the beds in care homes. It’s 30 years since the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 introduced an internal market into the supply of healthcare in the UK, making the state an 'enabler' rather than a supplier of health and social care provision. The options available today for older people have been completely transformed but the language has yet to evolve.
As a result, people often look for care and support too late, when they’re at crisis point and directed towards nursing care which tend to be homes for the most dependent. The language around other options has yet to crystallize. What we describe as a ‘safe, secure companionable environment’ enables older people to live the independent lives they want – housing with care, or apartments with care and support.
Our residents tell us they don’t want to be dependent on their children who themselves might be in their 60s. Whether they’re living near to family or far away, residents are as likely to want support with house maintenance, as they are with personal care. What they really want to know is whether they can get to the shops, the theatre, the park – and choose their own red wine. Yes, they want to know about the availability of care and support, should they need it, but they still want to enjoy living.
There’s a barrier to what we refer to as right-sizing. The common perception has always been that staying in your own home is better and there are now later-life equity release mortgages in the market that support people to stay put. However comfortable our physical environment, the fixtures and fittings are only one element of wellbeing in older age and social isolation is never positive.
Perhaps now, with the whole of society being forced to experience the realities of isolation and social distancing, will the language around older people and social care change. Only then will perceptions about living in a supported environment with care services on hand become something we look forward to.