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20 August 2009

How can we call ourselves civilised when we reward the feckless - yet punish the old for a lifetime of prudence

This is not just unfair; it is wrong, wicked, immoral and deserving of many other outraged adjectives that people who have worked hard to contribute to the State, rather than be a burden on it, should be punished in old age for their very virtues.

What can it feel like in your care home, as you experience the loss of independence that goes with, say, Parkinson's disease, to discover that the family home you loved and wished to pass on to your children is being sold to pay for your care? All because you put money aside for your old age?

Yet your neighbour, in the next room, who leeched all her life off your taxes, is being charged nothing and tells you it's only fair that the haves  -  by which she means you  -  should yet again provide for her.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail revealed how three grieving families won back almost £350,000 after a court ruled they were wrongly charged by the NHS for their relatives' care. In two of these cases, their homes had to be sold to meet the costs of long-term Parkinson's and Alzheimer's care.

The story of these families and their frail relatives is one of a monstrous social injustice  -  an injustice being perpetrated up and down the land.

'Old age is not for wimps,' said the film star Bette Davis when she was suffering from cancer and a stroke.
One of the many mysteries of English life is why our politicians, bureaucrats, medical researchers and the other groups who rule our lives seem utterly uninterested in making old age less stressful and painful.
Why are British pensions the lowest in Europe? Why do our bureaucrats insist that an 83-year-old I know, a pillar of the local church who reads stories to infants in a local primary school, undergoes a criminal record check? (She refused the check, and that was the end of her stories as well as an occupation that made her feel useful.)

Judith Roe
The late Judith Roe, who suffered from Alzheimer's. This week her family won their legal battle toreclaim £100,000 in care home fees which herNHS trust refused to pay - claiming her condition was not HEALTH related

Why are doctors fixated on 'sexy' research into obscure diseases rather than on palliative medicine? Don't they realise that most of us  -  and, in due course, they, too  -  will crave pain relief in our last days?

Every normal person accepts that the State should not have to take over full responsibility for every old person. It is right that children should look after parents who once cared for them. Yet, in truth, that is much more difficult now.

In an age when the elderly live longer than they used to and when, increasingly, households have two working parents, few families can afford the luxury of stay-at-home daughters or daughters-in-law to care for aged relatives.

It was the politicians who decided that the NHS should not provide 'continuing care' free for people with assets.

Maybe their intentions were honorable. Maybe, by stipulating that elderly people with means must pay for residential care unless their condition is deemed to be 'health-related', they were seeking to ensure that Mum wouldn't be put into a State-run care home by children who just wanted the proceeds of her house sale.

But whatever the politicians' motives  -  and there are, of course, greedy, selfish people who would chuck an elderly parent into the arms of the State without a thought  -  the system is deeply unsatisfactory.

Bureaucrats have interpreted the rules as narrowly as possible, and insist that people who happen to have a home or some capital should surrender it all to the State even if they have terminal conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

How can anyone in their right mind suggest that people suffering from these two chronic degenerative diseases of the nervous system are not suffering from a 'health-related' condition that entitles them to free care?

We live in a welfare state, for which hardworking taxpayers pay relentlessly. The idea behind the National Health Service was that everyone, 'from cradle to grave', would be looked after properly. And the idea behind the benefits system was that no one should starve.

The fair-minded, compassionate British were always happy to accept that the fortunate should subsidise the unfortunate, by which they meant people who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on hard times. Even when they began to realise it meant the thrifty should support the feckless, they gritted their teeth and accepted it.

The thing was, they did not realise that this would lead to the penalising of prudence and the rewarding of irresponsibility.

You thought that in paying for your child's education, you were making him a better person and saving the State a great deal of money? No, no, no. You are an enemy of the State, and your child will be discriminated against when he applies for university.

You thought that there was nothing wrong with taking out private health insurance as you were paying your taxes anyway?

You bad person. Try to buy drugs that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has ruled too expensive to be used in the health service and, until a recent national outcry that caused a change in policy, you would have been denied the right to any NHS treatment whatsoever.

And you thought that by scrimping and saving for a home of your own you would be able to leave something to your descendants. Rubbish! If you have any assets, you are a cash cow for the primary care trusts.

The point is all these injustices and slights to the hard-working and prudent are highlighted in the treatment of the old. Where  -  other than in this paper  -  is there a national debate about dignity for the elderly?

What old people want is straightforward. They want good medical treatment, enough help to enable them to stay independent and in their own houses for as long as possible, and encouragement to play a useful part in society without being treated like a criminal.

If there is no other option, they want a decent care home and a dignified death, made as comfortable and pain-free as modern medicine can provide.

What they do not want is to see all their assets, hard-won over a lifetime, eaten up at the end of their days by a State which has callously abandoned them.

Caring for the elderly has always been the hallmark of a civilised society. Yet here in Britain  -  amid a frankly terrifying enthusiasm among politicians, bureaucrats and doctors for assisted suicide  -  our old are being penalised.

When you think of the sums wasted on our sclerotic welfare state, the way we strip them of their savings and homes is enough to make you weep.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. I am a great believer in people-power and we should all say 'Hurrah' for those three bereft families who took on a cruel, unfair system and won.

It is time the old fought back. They have votes. Oldies, start harrying authority to treat you with respect and concentrate on making your lives fruitful, your illnesses comfortable and your deaths painless. And tell them to keep quiet about making it easy for you to kill yourself.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards