Over a pint of beer with a friend in his eighties, I wonder what my own declining years will bring. The staff at his local know my friend well and pull his favourite beer but he no longer has any memory of having set foot in the pub ever before. He enjoys the outing and says that he is happy with his lot.
Whenever I struggle to call a name to mind, I fear I might be on the same slipway myself. For a man of my age, heart disease and cancer are the most likely causes of my demise. But the longer I dodge the bullet, the more likely that dementia will set in and that is what haunts me most.
I jokingly point to the care home at the top of my street as my final destination but now find it is closing down allegedly because the council does not pay reasonable care costs. If the care home industry collapses through lack of funding, will be there be anywhere for me to rest my ageing bones with any degree of dignity?
So I was pleased to see Theresa May proposing to tackle social care costs, in that early and innocent phase of the election campaign before it was overshadowed by the terrible events in Manchester. She then enjoyed such a commanding lead in the polls that she could risk losing the support of the mighty elderly voter. In her manifesto, ( or was it the Conservative Party’s?) the triple lock was broken, the winter fuel allowance means tested and a plan for funding end of life care proposed. But the scheme was withdrawn three days later.
I was pleased to see someone take an initiative on a topic that had been consigned to the filing cabinet. The Commission chaired by the economist Andrew Dilnot had recommended in 2011 that those with the means to do so should pay for their social care but that personal contributions should be capped at an agreed level. Thereafter the state would pay.
David Cameron accepted the findings but delayed implementation until 2020. Under the current system, anyone with less than £14,000 receives free care and those with more than £23,000, do not which, Dilnot said recently, creates both inequality and a fair amount of cheating. Us oldies want to know where we stand and to plan if we can.
The Conservative manifesto appeared to be more generous by meeting the cost of care for everyone with assets of £100,000 or less. But it actually pushed more of the cost on to the cared for by including the cost of their home and the cost of care at home as well.
The announcement received support from some unlikely quarters. Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton both welcomed it because it unlocked the vast pent up property fortune that has fallen into the lap of most pensioners through the housing boom. The ’dementia tax’ stopped the ‘intergenerational injustice’ of the hard pressed younger generation, who cannot afford to buy a flat, meeting the costs of the older generation living in their mansions.
But think further and you realise this scheme is an iniquitous lottery. At present one in five of us will need long term care and the numbers are rising partly because we are living longer and avoiding other death traps. Those unfortunate to suffer from a degenerative disease will pay the cost. They will lose their savings and their children will not inherit. Those dying from cancer will be treated for free and pass on their riches to the next generation. This is a long way from the universal provision of the welfare state.
And of course, apart from the principles of how to pay for social care, there is the mess of low wages for care workers, the dependence on E U migrants to staff the homes and the inability of local authorities to pay a reasonable rate. My beer drinking companion is able to pay his way and receives good care but life in a state funded home in years to come sounds like the modern equivalent of purgatory.
Sir Andrew, rightly ennobled for his work, is unrepentant. There’s plenty of money, he says. “ We may choose not to afford it but the notion that we can’t afford something, given what has happened to our income is striking and quite surprising, and doesn’t strike me as correct.” He and others propose different versions of taxation on all pensioners and their estates that would spread the load.
At least Team Theresa tried to come up with a solution and spin it into a vote winning one. Now she is in retreat. There is talk of more consultation but expect the social care crisis to continue and to get worse. The Kings Fund says the cash shortfall will be £2bn by 2020.
Pensioners have seen off this half hatched solution over a weekend without even rising blood pressure. Voters will worry whether someone who can change her mind so quickly and spectacularly can handle a long Brexit negotiation.
If I was Theresa May, I would be worried at my falling ratings. If I was Andrew Dilnot, I would despair and I am resigned to whatever the fates may deal me in future days and hope you will take me out for a pint of beer.
Published in Newcastle Journal on 30th May 2017