Equality and Human Rights Commission join debate about elderly care

The debate about the care of vulnerable adults, in particular the elderly, is intensifying. A year-long inquiry by The Equality and Human Rights Commission into standards of care for the elderly at home has uncovered “appalling” evidence of pensioners being deprived of food and drink, handled roughly, humiliated and even robbed.   Many incidents amounted to “abuses of human rights”, which left elderly people feeling profoundly depressed, in tears and even expressing “a desire to die”, the report said. Many care workers often spend just 15 minutes with an elderly person, ticking off pre-arranged “tasks” in an approach that displayed “chronic disregard” for their dignity.

In one case, an elderly blind man said two council carers were talking to each other over his head, leaving him feeling like “a lump of meat”. In another, a 76-year-old woman with advanced cancer was told her care worker could not prepare her a microwave meal because of “health and safety” rules.   Baroness Greengross, the commissioner responsible for the report, told The Daily Telegraph that 250,000 vulnerable pensioners in England were receiving “poor or very poor” standards of care at home…but the true figure may be far higher because many are “too frightened to complain”, she said.

The findings represent the latest scandal to hit care for elderly people in England. A series of damning inquiries by inspectors highlighted the failure of NHS hospitals to treat older patients with dignity, leaving them dehydrated and malnourished. The 115-page report estimated that half of the 500,000 people receiving home help with tasks such as washing, dressing and cooking were satisfied with the quality of their support. But “significant shortcomings” in the way councils commissioned services from private care firms and nursing agencies led to breaches of basic human rights for “hundreds of thousands” of frail pensioners, it said. The report, which gathered evidence from 1,254 individuals, local authorities, care providers and other groups in England, found:

  • • Older people were not being given adequate support to eat and drink, while a shortage of time for visits meant some were suffering “neglect”.
  • • Money was “systematically stolen over a period of time” in some cases.
  • • Carers showed “chronic disregard for older people’s privacy and dignity”.
  • • Staff were “talking over” older people, sometimes on mobile phones, or patronising them.
  • • Examples of “physical abuse” included “rough handling” and “unnecessary force”.

Lady Greengross condemned “disgusting” examples of age discrimination in the way councils organised care for vulnerable elderly people. While young disabled adults were often taken out of their homes on trips, the elderly were almost always left for hours alone at home, she said.  “We are talking about a quarter of a million people who are getting either very poor or poor care. Some of them are too frightened to complain. Some of them wouldn’t know how to.” Lady Greengross warned that too often care workers were restricted by a “task-oriented” system, in which they are allocated no more than 15 minutes for a visit. This meant many pensioners were being deprived of “basic social interaction”. The commission called for a loophole in the Human Rights Act to be closed to require councils to agree human rights clauses in contracts with groups providing care workers.

Paul Burstow, the care services minister, said he would not “tolerate” poor services of home care. “I am determined to root out ageism and bad practice to drive up quality and dignity in care,” he said. The Local Government Association blamed the failures on a lack of funding for elderly care, exacerbated by Coalition cuts, and said the system needed “urgent reform”.  The charity Age UK condemned the “shameful” findings, while Liz Kendall, the shadow minister for care, said the report portrayed “a service stretched to the limit”. She urged ministers to join cross-party talks to devise a solution.

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