There is a collective “national shame” in ignoring the emotional needs of elderly people, according to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Hunt told delegates at the National Children and Adults Services (NCAS) conference that entering old age “should not involve waving goodbye to one’s dignity.”
Speaking about cases of abuse in care homes, he said there is a need to apply rigorous, unflinching standards towards the regulation of care in both the private and public sector.
He said: “According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, there are 800,000 people in England who are chronically lonely.
“Some 5 million people say television is their main form of company – that’s 10 per cent of the population.
“We know there is a broader problem of loneliness that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society.
“Each and every lonely person has someone who could visit them and offer companionship.
“A forgotten million who live amongst us – ignored to our national shame.”
Mr Hunt told delegates 112,000 cases of alleged abuse were referred by English councils in 2012/13, the majority involving over-65s.
“Something is badly wrong in a society where potentially 1,000 such instances are happening every single week,” he said.
Referring to the way older people are treated in other cultures, Mr Hunt referred to his Chinese wife, saying he is “struck by the reverence and respect for older people in Asian culture”.
He added: “In those countries, when living alone is no longer possible, residential care is a last rather than a first option.
“And the social contract is stronger 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.
“If we are to tackle the challenge of an ageing society, we must learn from this – and restore and reinvigorate the social contract between generations.
“And uncomfortable though it is to say it, it will only start with changes in the way we personally treat our own parents and grandparents.”
“We may have different roles to play, but together we can challenge society, celebrate and promote best practice, and agree that “good enough” is never enough.
“And if we persist, we can do something even more amazing: really and truly make this country the best place in the world to grow old in.”
Mr Hunt said new chief inspector of social care, Andrea Sutcliffe, will act as a champion of the people who use the services – the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief.
“Andrea will start giving ratings to care homes from April 2014, and all locations – some 25,000 in total – will be inspected by March 2016 and then receive official ratings,” he said.
“These will be accessible to the public online and easy to understand.
“She is absolutely right to demand that they all pass a ‘good enough for my mum’ test and to denounce a tick-box culture.
“The involvement of ‘experts by experience’, residents, carers and specialist inspectors will make a huge difference.
“Just as we know how good all our local schools are thanks to rigorous, independent inspections by Ofsted, I want us all to know how good our local care is.”
Age UK’s charity director, Caroline Abrahams, said: “A seismic shift is needed in attitudes towards older people and ageing in this country.
“As we get older, we are more likely to suffer illness and disability which can prevent us from getting out and about, and people’s social networks often shrink due to life-changing events such as retirement and bereavement which can increase the risk of becoming lonely.
“At Age UK we are extremely concerned that cuts to local authority budgets are exacerbating the problem of loneliness because they are causing the closure of many support services for older people, like lunch clubs, which can be a lifeline for those on their own.
“These cuts are also pushing to breaking point many families who are trying to care for their older relatives in the absence of adequate support. Caring is often a 24/7 role that can have a huge physical and emotional impact on the carer.”