Prudence Dailey Commentary: Care of the Elderly is a Family Responsibility

Prudence Dailey Commentary

Care of the Elderly is a Family Responsibility

Once again, the question of how to fund residential care for the elderly has been in the news, with the Government suggesting that it might be paid for by an increase in the rate of National Insurance. These proposals have received a certain amount of criticism from those, including the Archbishop of Canterbury (speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme), who argue that it would be unfair to place additional financial burdens on the already hard-pressed young to pay for the needs of the elderly.

The Archbishop makes a fair point; but there is nothing distinctively Christian in his perspective. The same observations could be—and indeed have been—made by many secular commentators. Leaders of the Church might also find an opportunity to reflect on the social shifts that contribute to the difficulties in which our society finds itself when it comes to looking after those no longer able to look after themselves.

Traditional societies, by and large, do not have this problem. Just as parents take care of their own children, grown-up children take care of their elderly parents, who live with them in extended families: the same pattern is commonly seen in Britain today among Asian communities especially. 

Of course, there are many practical reasons why it may not always be desirable or even possible for elderly people to be cared for by their families at home: they might have medical or personal care needs which cannot be properly met by family members; they might require 24-hour care, while their children still have to go out to work; or the family home may not be physically suitable to accommodate them. In addition, there are increasing numbers of people (the present writer included) who do not have children to look after them in their declining years; while in other cases, family members simply do not get along. Furthermore, divorce and family breakup, and subsequent remarriage—subjects on which the Church is strangely reticent to speak—can make things more difficult.

The fact remains, though, that the traditional model of family care tells us something about the natural order of things, and where primary responsibility lies. Sometimes, we hear that unpaid family carers ‘save the government’ £x billion a year—but conceptually, this is entirely the wrong way round. It is never suggested that parents are saving the government money by looking after their own children, because it is automatically understood that childcare is a parental obligation—even though there will always be cases where it is not, in fact, possible for the parents to discharge it.

It is right and proper that people who have worked and saved all their lives to purchase a home, and perhaps to acquire other savings, might hope to bequeath their assets to their loved ones after they die. Understandably, therefore, neither the would-be legator nor the intended beneficiary wants to see the value of those assets whittled away to pay for care—but unless family members are able to provide that care directly themselves, somebody has to pay for it.

In cases where assets are insufficient, there seems little alternative to this cost being met by the state—which, as life expectancy continues to rise, will be an increasing drain on the Treasury. Nevertheless, once it is accepted that the ultimate responsibility for the care of the elderly lies with their families, any potential adverse effect on inheritance seems less like a problem to be solved, and more like an inevitable consequence of the human condition.