The health secretary says families should be looking after their elderly relatives, but it may not be that simple.
How the UK copes with an increasingly lonely population of over-65s is a key economic and social question, and it is great that the health secretary has thought to mention it in his latest speech.
Jeremy Hunt has searched earnestly for an answer. The British way of ageing is deeply flawed, he says, concluding that adopting the Asian way of caring is the answer.
The first problem with calls for Britons to be more Asian when it comes to care, just like injunctions to adopt German rigour in business and the Swedish way of family life, is that we are British and culturally we behave very differently.
But let’s set that aside and ask whether the Asian solution is the answer.
Firstly, the responsibility for caring, outside state-organised schemes, often falls to women – and usually to the middle-aged mother who is also still mainly responsible for bringing up children. Most caring within state and private institutions is also carried out by women, but they are paid and gain some economic independence. Caring when it means giving up work is a form of servitude that leaves many women deeply unhappy.
Closer to home, both Germany and Italy have low birth rates associated with traditional family duties. Until recently German women were almost obliged to look after their children until they went to school at seven. Their response was to stop having more than one child. Pressure to keep the birthrate low is even more intense in Italy, where mothers are also expected to look after parents and in-laws. Italy avoided bankruptcy in the financial crash largely because its welfare state is largely conducted by an unpaid workforce of guilt-tripped women. Having children has become a minority occupation.
Secondly, the Asian example is associated with an agrarian economy, where family is close by. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and China are rapidly urbanising and confronting the same issues as us.
Consider this brief extract from an article in the Jakarta Post:
Cumi Solechah, a 65-year-old widow, says she did not think her senior years would be spent in a nursing home.
“Life is just a mystery. You don’t know where it will lead you,” Umi told the Jakarta Post during a recent visit to Budi Mulia 4 nursing home in Radio Dalam, South Jakarta.
Umi, who worked with the Indonesian embassy in Washington DC for 10 years, recalled serving Indonesian diplomats including former ambassadors Soesilo Soedarman and Arifin Siregar.
Her life changed when she had to return in 1998 to treat her sick mother.
“I spent nearly all my riches treating my mom before she died,” said Umi, who worked in the US from 1989 to 1997.
Her husband then passed away.
Umi did not elaborate on why she went to a nursing home aside from saying: “I was abandoned by my brothers and sisters despite my contributions to them.”
Is this the Asian example Hunt wants us to emulate?
Indonesia’s National Commission for the Elderly said only 3.9% of the country’s elderly in 2006 could rely on their monthly pension fund.
The commission said this drove about 50% of elderly women to rely on their children and their partners, compared with 29% of elderly men.
The Post reported one nursing home head as saying that in many cases the elderly were abandoned by their children or other family members if they had a low income or health issue such as Alzheimer’s.
Geoff Mulgan, the boss of the government-funded ideas charity Nesta, says we need to create a volunteer workforce to bring the poorer and weaker people among our 12 million over-65s together to alleviate poverty and tackle loneliness.
In 2009 I argued for a programme of national service for the over-65s. Mulgan wants a voluntary scheme, and mine would not be compulsory but with elements of coercion and guilt to spur participation.
This system would build on existing networks and draw on charities and the latest thinking among local authorities for co-operative ventures. We don’t need to be Asian to be kind and set aside a little time for community service. But we do need a little encouragement and a scheme that we can feel comfortable joining.
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