Health secretary says people should keep in closer touch with older relatives to reduce isolation, and take greater responsibility for their own health
People should consider inviting elderly strangers to live with them for a while to reduce isolation and the number of pensioners dying a “lonely death”, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will say in a speech.
He will also urge people to keep in closer touch with older relatives, friends and neighbours. Hunt will highlight the case of a man found in Edinburgh last week three years after he died, and the eight council-funded “lonely funerals” a day in England, half of which involve over-65s.
“Are we really saying these people had no living relatives or friends? Or is it something sadder, namely that the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives that we don’t have any idea even when they are dying?” Hunt will tell the annual conference of the Local Government Association.
“In Japan, nearly 30,000 people die alone every year and they have even coined a word for it, kudokushi, which means ‘lonely death’. How many lonely deaths do we have in Britain where, according to Age UK, a million older people have not spoken to anyone in the last month?”
Hunt will also urge people to be more careful about drawing on “finite NHS resources” and to display greater personal responsibility by taking better care of their own health in order to reduce lifestyle-related illness such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.
Hunt will praise the work of Shared Lives, a charity that pays people to let vulnerable individuals – including pensioners who have recently come out of hospital or suffered a bereavement – stay with them until they have got back on their feet. Recipients also include people with learning disabilities and mental illness.
Around 12,000 people across the UK receive accommodation and support through the scheme, which describes itself as providing “a unique way to live well and feel independent but not alone”. Half live with families on a long-term basis and half temporarily.
Hosts receive payment for the care and support they provide. The arrangement is estimated to save £26,000 in care costs for someone with learning disabilities, and £8,000 for an individual with mental health problems.
Hunt will say that the UK’s six million carers and a strong network of charities do great work but are not enough to help ensure the growing number of older people get the support they need. “If we are to rise to the challenges we face, taking care of older relatives and friends will need to become part of all of our lives,” he will say.
Talking to a boss about elderly care should become as normal as discussing childcare arrangements, he will add.
While stressing the need for the NHS to be efficient and to spend every pound of its £110bn budget wisely, Hunt will say: “There is a role for patients here too. There is no such thing as a free health service: everything we are proud of in the NHS is funded by taxpayers and every penny we waste costs patients more through higher taxes.”
His call for people to live healthier lives to ease the strain on the increasingly overburdened NHS echoes a policy already being pursued by Wales’s Labour government. Its “prudent healthcare” initiative seeks to tackle “the twin challenges of rising costs and increasing demand, while continuing to improve the quality of care”.
Citing greater personal responsibility as a way to relieve the strain on the NHS, Hunt will say: “The best person to prevent a long-term condition developing is not the doctor, it’s you.”
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