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11 January 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:30pm

Why the social care crisis is a human rights issue

We are not destined to be objects of pity in our old age. But ageism is alive and kicking, 

By Bethany Brown

Most people in England have probably heard about the country’s social care crisis and the enormous pressure on the vital services that support older people to live independent and dignified lives in their own homes.

The crisis might seem insurmountable, but the causes are specific and can be remedied.

I’ve spent the last year interviewing older people in the country about their experiences of cuts to their social care. For the people I spoke to, it meant trips to the A&E for simple infections that would have been caught early but for cuts to services. It meant the indignity of borrowing money from grown-up children to make ends meet when support was cut unexpectedly. It meant the uncertainty of not knowing where and when the next cut will fall.

I am certain that these are not one-off incidents. And they are not just sad stories. They are stories that suggest a systemic problem with government oversight.

Human Rights Watch has investigated how social care assessments for older people in England are carried out, and found that improper assessments are resulting in critical cuts to people’s services that support their right to health and to live independently in the community.

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Under the Care Act 2014, anyone who meets specific criteria is entitled to means-tested state-funded care. This includes help with things like preparing meals at home, dressing, and bathing.

But we found that local authorities, who carry out the social care assessments, have been left to mark their own homework – with no meaningful central government oversight. And we found that even if a person appeals a cut to their services, local authorities can and do cut care while the appeal is being considered. This can leave older people – who may be living alone with dementia – without their carers to provide the support that is crucial for a successful appeal.

This is a problem that, if left unchecked, will likely grow. According to the National Audit Office, the number of people in England aged 65 and over is projected to increase by more than 20 per cent from 2014 to 2024.

We are not destined to be objects of pity in our old age. This is just a function of the way the world views being older. Ageism is alive and kicking, as recent news accounts and a warning from the UN’s Expert on Older People’s Rights shows.

Yet becoming older is something that we hope will happen to all of us, and when it does, we have the right to live independently and with community-based services to support us. And it makes financial sense too. Social care is often cheaper to deliver at home than in a residential care setting. But too often, age discrimination persists across societies, driving policy decisions that undermine human rights.

How to solve this social care crisis? The first step is to know how big it is. Without government accountability for accurate needs assessments, we’ll never know. The government also needs to understand how wider budget cuts it is making under the austerity drive are impacting social care in the country.

Until the government investigates and then acknowledges the scale of the problem, people across England are headed for uncertainty in their older years.

Bethany Brown researches older people’s rights with the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. 

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