Helen Martin: It’s up to us all to assist elderly

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IT is generally accepted amongst professionals that keeping the elderly and vulnerable “living independently in the community” is a good idea.

There’s only one problem – it’s a lie. The truly independent aren’t on the radar at all, and the vulnerable elderly can only stay in the community by being exceedingly dependent on a society that should be prepared to look after them properly.

We don’t have a vast supply of idyllic, palatial, fun-filled, affordable nursing and care home paradises that the elderly are queuing up for, so I can see that it’s necessary and desirable for those who can to stay in their own house. But society will have to do a hell of lot more if this is a realistic plan for the future, given the demographic, ageing time bomb we know is about to explode on us.

One case illustrating that is the story of 92-year-old James Milne from Drumbrae, who fell and had to spend the night injured on his bathroom floor because BT had cut off the landline which operates the personal emergency alarm around his neck. In between community care visits, he couldn’t call for help.

BT’s response was to express its sympathy but to point out his bill was overdue despite reminders and a phone call, and to say that the company would now contact him to “outline our registration process for more vulnerable customers”.

What it seems to have overlooked is that many vulnerable customers, whether through memory problems, lack of understanding or immobility, cannot respond to reminders. They are unlikely to register themselves as “vulnerable”, even when prompted. That – to point out the blindingly obvious – is why they are 
vulnerable.

I may be doing Mr Milne an injustice. He could be as sharp as a tack. But as the numbers of elderly grow, with all the problems of advancing age, so does the challenge of how they can manage in the community, without each having a personal assistant to pay bills, administrate bank accounts, challenge unfair payments, claim discount entitlements and manage 
everyday business affairs, especially in a world where banks and utility companies can’t always be trusted.

I do know something about all this as I have Power of Attorney for my mother and have waded through agonising hours of e-mailing, telephoning, button pushing, letter writing and form filling to deal with everything from her pensions and income tax to her phone bills and house sale.

I have taken power firms to task for sending an electricity bill for £250 for a house she hadn’t lived in for two years, only to discover they owed her £20. That’s on top of food shopping, dealing with tradesmen and now coping with paperwork and financing between her local authority and the nursing home where she lives.

She could not have done any of that herself and not everyone has a family member to legally take over these complex responsibilities.

I wouldn’t mind betting there are thousands and thousands of vulnerable people such as Mr Milne who are not registered as such with telephone and power companies – a number that will grow as the population ages. Low-paid community care workers are already stretched to meet the basics of feeding, cleaning and dressing their clients. Meals have to be “pinged” because they have no time to cook anything. Social workers are in short supply, too.

The free competitive market – with baffling unexpected sales calls, impenetrable tariffs, call centres that can only be found by complex 
button-pressing routines and customer service operations which expect the customer to do the work – is not suited to the needs of the vulnerable.

We have the information. The Department of Work and Pensions and the taxman knows exactly how old we all are. The social work department knew Mr Milne’s needs. Surely there must be some way of joining up and “interfacing” with essential services and utility companies so that the onus is on them to check and realise that cutting off a 92-year-old man’s phone line was not a good idea.

Our world, from the way companies operate to the creaking 
community care systems which will have to double, treble and more over the next decades, will have to change to accommodate the old, whatever the cost to shareholders, investors and taxpayers.

Using the word “independence” to downplay an impending crisis is sheer spin.

Still dame

THE Dallas curtain rises on the news that Bobby Ewing is dying. Obviously a miracle cure, or something even more dramatic, is waiting in the wings.

After all these years it has dawned on me that the Southfork story is a result of the Americans not having any such thing as panto. It’s as impossible as Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk, as camp as Christmas, with goodies and baddies and that de-dum-de-dum, de-dum-dum-de-dum chorus.

The costumes are elaborate, the script can go anywhere and the Poisoned Dwarf is back looking like a panto dame. All it’s missing is Grant Stott.