“[I am] struck by the reverence and respect for older people in Asian culture. In those countries, when living alone is no longer possible, residential care is a last, rather than a first option”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, National Children’s and Adults Services conference, 18 October 2013
The acute loneliness of the UK’s elderly population is to our “national shame”, says the Health Secretary.
Mr Hunt, who once worked in Japan and whose wife is Chinese, said we should take lessons from Asia – where the “social contract” between the elderly and the young is stronger.
This is, he says, “because as children see how their own grandparents are looked after, they develop higher expectations of how they too will be treated when they get old”.
Mr Hunt added: “If we are to tackle the challenge of an aging society, we must learn from this – and restore and reinvigorate the social contract between generations.”
But how fair is it for Mr Hunt to fill our heads with eastern promise? FactCheck investigates.
Chronic loneliness affects 800,000 people in England, Mr Hunt told the audience at the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference. And this is something we have “utterly failed to confront as a society”.
Asian countries, however, such as China and India, are renowned for their respect of their elders, he said.
Yet they also face the problem of a burgeoning elderly population – those aged over 65.
Asia’s elderly population is expected to reach 922.7m by 2050 – it is on track to become the oldest region in the world, according to the Asian Development Bank.
China is facing up to the long-term effects of its one-child policy – with too many old people and not enough young people to look after them.
Government statistics show that more than 178m people in China were over the age of 60 in 2010. By 2030, that figure is expected to double.
Last year, less than 2 per cent of China’s elderly population lived in nursing homes, government data shows.
But as the number of grey heads increases across China, so too do the stories of neglect.
In the last week alone, one 94-year-old Chinese woman has sued her daughter-in-law for not caring for her.
Other reports have told of a 91-year-old woman who was beaten, and a 101-year-old grandmother forced to sleep in a pig sty.
But then there is also an abundance of stories of grown-up children buckling under the strain of being a carer.
China Daily tells the story of Chen Binqiang, a 37-year-old teacher who’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago.
He has to lock his mother indoors in order to go to work, and he takes turns with his wife to check on her during the day.
He told the newspaper: “With a patient at home, it’s almost impossible for me to take half a day off to go out together with my wife. I really hope there were volunteers who can help take care of my mother, even if it’s only for a few hours occasionally.”
In India meanwhile, there are 100m elderly people – a figure expected to double by 2050.
A report by the United Nations Population Fund has warned that India’s current hospital and welfare services are insufficient for the strain they’ll face as the population expands.
It warned: “There is a need to strengthen geriatric care services in the existing public health system so that the increasing care demands of the elderly can be met.”
There are also reports that some of India’s elderly are starting to move to residential care homes, and in China demand for care homes has risen sharply.
In January, Beijing’s most popular old peoples’ home had a waiting list that was 100 years long – with more than 10,000 applicants are on the waiting list for the 1,100 beds on offer, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.
China’s government had installed the “elderly rights law” ordering adult children to visit their aging parents or face fines.
But so far, the law hasn’t shown its teeth. And instead the government has pledged to increase support for families in all urban areas and in 50 per cent of rural communities by 2015.
Interestingly, the Chinese government was encouraged to do this by the British government.
In April, the British embassy in Beijing hosted a workshop on strengthening care for the elderly in China.
The team concluded that China’s elderly care system had focused too much on residential care. It suggested instead that “admission criteria” should be developed for care homes.
Nearly 80 per cent of care home beds “are occupied by healthy older people”, the report found, “who live there because they cannot access the right services and recreation opportunities at home”.
Mr Hunt’s view of the east is perhaps one that harks back to the early 1990s – when he spent a few rose-tinted post-university years as an English teacher in Japan.
The facts are less romantic. Asia is on track to be the world’s largest old people’s home – with more old people than any where else in the world.
China is facing up to the reality of its one-child policy, with demand for care homes and carers soaring as the ageing population continues to grow.
The days of the happy “social contract” between generations in China are numbered. The government knows it – which is why it’s investing in support for carers right now (on the advice of the British government).
China’s own academics have looked abroad for answers.
Du Peng, a professor with the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China, has pointed out that in Hong Kong and Finland, adults receive tax breaks for looking after their parents. In Germany, family carers can send their parents to care homes for three days a month, free of charge.
“But in China, the reality is that most families haven’t received any financial support or other incentives to take care of aging parents,” he told China Daily.
India has been warned it will face a similar problem. The answer, says the UN, is to strengthen care services in the existing public health system.
Here in the UK, spending on social care for the elderly has fallen by £830m. Yet the number of people aged over 85 has climbed by nearly 100,000 – or 8 per cent – during that time.
Last year, 45 per cent of the UK’s 6.5m carers said they had to give up their jobs to care for people – and 61 per cent have suffered from depression.
Carers UK estimates these people save the UK economy £119bn a year – or £2.3bn a week. This compares to a total annual cost of the NHS of £98.8bn (or £1.9bn a week).
Perhaps we should follow China’s example and ensure that residential care really is a last option – by supporting the carers.
By Emma Thelwell