John Rees writes about how the social care crisis hit his family
I very rarely write personal articles or even posts on social media. But for the last six months my family and I have been living through the social care crisis just as it has become a question of national debate, and then a central issue in the general election. So here is what is happening to us, just as it is happening to thousands of others, and why it is wrong.
In late December last year, my Mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A week later she fell in the street near her home in Chippenham, knocking herself unconscious. She was rushed to Bath’s Royal United Hospital (RUH) where a scan revealed some bleeding on the brain. This is a 15-mile journey down the always congested A4. There is no major hospital closer.
She made some marginal recovery and there was talk of her being allowed back to her house after a period rehabilitation at Chippenham’s Community Hospital. I travelled in the front of the ambulance that took her from the Royal United to Chippenham. I was surprised to see that the switches that turned on the siren and emergency lights were a separate unit stuck on top of the dashboard and connected to the power supply from the cigarette lighter.
I asked the driver about the ambulance service at the Royal United. He told me that all but the emergency ambulances are privatised. The contract had been awarded to Arriva, the train operators. But Arriva don’t always have enough ambulances so he worked for another private firm that supplies ambulances when the demand outstrips Arriva’s capacity. It gets more patients where they need to be on time, he told me, and ‘everybody is happy except the hospital budget’.
My Mum didn’t recover and the Alzheimer’s took its toll at an ever-increasing rate. She had another fall in Chippenham hospital and had to be rushed back to the Royal United.
Throughout this time hospital staff and social workers have talked to my sister and me about the prospects of my Mum coming out of hospital and being sent to a care home. It was made clear that my Mum would have to sell her house to pay for the care home.
My Mum’s house is worth about £170,000, well below the national average of £210,000. She would get to keep £23,000 of that and the rest would be paid to the care home.
The house was bought long ago from the money my Mum and Dad paid for the house I was brought up in, a red brick, end of terrace house which our family shared with my Gran. We had lived first in a council house in Melksham when Mum and Dad worked at the Avon Tyre plant. They bought the house in Chippenham when Dad got a job at Westinghouse Brake and Signal.
I still remember my father working lates and on Saturdays to get the overtime to pay the mortgage off. When my sister and I were older my Mum did some part-time work at the local greengrocers.
My father is long gone. But he would be turning in his grave at the thought of the house he and Mum worked so hard for being sold off and the money given to the private companies that run most care homes. Somerset’s social care, though not Wiltshire’s, is now in the hands of Richard Branson’s Virgin corporation.
And what of those care homes? The House of Commons report on social care shows that nearly half the staff are on zero hours contracts and half leave the job within a year. Some 40 percent of staff have no dementia training and the same percentage have no training in administering medicine. I looked at the first five care homes that the social worker recommended to me. Four of the five were rated ‘unsafe’ by the homes’ inspectorate. A separate report into Scottish care homes show record numbers of complaints in private homes.
Naturally, my sister and I were very reluctant to have my mother’s house taken from her or, much more seriously, for her to be moved from an NHS hospital to a clearly failing social care system. At my request case conference was called in April. Ahead of this ‘best interest’ meeting I wrote to hospital:
My sister and I are able to attend the rescheduled meeting on Monday 24 April at 10am. I hope that you will be able to send us material on the diagnosis of my mother's condition and your prognosis of its likely development so we can have an informed discussion on the day and avoid the necessity of further meetings.
As a life-long campaigner for an adequately funded NHS naturally I share your concerns over the availability of beds in the health service... I'm sure that you will understand that given the grave crisis in adult social care which, according to the latest House of Commons report, has resulted in half of staff resigning within a year in the job, 50 percent of staff paid less than the minimum wage, and over 40 percent of staff with no training in dealing with dementia patients, my sister and I will not take any action over the care of my mother without proper and detailed consideration of the alternatives available to us.
I look forward to meeting you and the other staff next week.
As it happens my Mum’s condition has outrun the plans to move her to a home and she will not have to leave the NHS.
But no family should face this. There should be no pressure on beds. There should be no ambulances, or any other NHS services, in private hands. Working people should not be forced to sell houses that embody the very modest resources they have accumulated over the entirety of a working life. Alzheimer’s should be treated as a medical condition, not as an inevitable aspect of ageing. Cancer is categorised as an illness and is therefore treated by the NHS. Alzheimer’s should be as well.
I would not have written this if my family were simply suffering from a particularly unfortunate accident. But we are not. We are part of a much wider social crisis being suffered by tens of thousands of working people.
The Tories, and those Labour right wingers before them, who have allowed the NHS and social care to get into this state are responsible for an act of social vandalism. They are a clear and present danger to the lives and livelihood of working people. They are happy to seize the small houses of working people but would howl with indignation at the suggestion that private corporations should be nationalised without compensation.
If the Tories win the election they will extend this fundamentally unjust system into care at home as well as care in nursing homes, forcing children to sell their parent’s homes after they die. For this alone they deserve the description that the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, used when he said the Tories are ‘lower than vermin’.
In one of her few recent lucid moments my mother woke to hear my sister and the doctor discussing all this at her bedside. The doctor said, ‘you’re a very political family’. ‘Yes’, my Mum suddenly interjected, ‘we are a very political family’. And then she fell back to sleep.
But you shouldn’t have to be a political working family to protect yourself. You shouldn’t have to fight against the whole bias of the system. It should be a right, from the cradle to the grave, an unchallenged right, to have healthcare free at the point of need paid for from general taxation.
That’s what the NHS was founded to provide. Don’t let anyone take it away from us.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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