THERE is a crisis in the provision of social care for older people. Public spending on social care (£8.34 billion in 2015-16) has been flat in real terms for ten years. Over the same period, the number of people aged between 65 and 84 has increased by 20 per cent to 8.4 million, and those above the age of 85 by 31 per cent to 1.3 million.
Today, fewer than half the older people who need help with basic tasks such as getting out of bed, washing, getting dressed, and preparing food receive support from their local authority. This puts pressure on informal carers, many of whom are elderly themselves.
In his budget last week, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced that the Government would spend an additional £2 billion on social care over the next three years (News, 10 March). This is to be welcomed, although money alone will not solve the crisis. Furthermore, the Church has a crucial part to play.
THE crisis in social care reflects a diminishment of the reciprocity between generations envisaged by the prophet Zechariah (8.3-6). He painted a picture of post-exilic Jerusalem in which the elderly were at ease and the streets were filled with the sound of children playing — a visionary description translated in the Message version as “a good city to grow old in . . . [and] a good city to grow up in”.
The Church can offer vital leadership in helping to rebuild these bonds between the generations. Churches should be places where old and young are fellow-pilgrims, learning from each other on a shared journey of faith, and where older people are warmly supported from within the community instead of existing in isolation at its edges.
But the way many churches function does not aid this vision of reciprocity between the generations. A typical model of church is one in which the older worshipper is found at the eight-o’clock service, while children leave “all-age” worship to join age-specific activity groups, and young adults hang out at an informal evening service. Outreach to the elderly takes place at the over-sixties’ lunch club.
Zechariah’s vision, refracted through Christ’s call that we love our neighbours as ourselves, should encourage us to reflect on whether our practices make the generations strangers to one another and put Zechariah’s vision further out of reach.
Canon Sam Wells’s idea of “being with”, as outlined in A Nazareth Manifesto (John Wiley, 2015), provides an important theological reference point. “Being with”, he says, is the most faithful form of Christian witness and mission. Our missional task is no more than to accept the invitation to restored relationship with one another and with God, bringing wisdom, humanity, and grace.
What might such a model of community reciprocity and “being with” look like in practice, both in the Church and wider society? In the university town of Deventer in the Netherlands, a retirement home offers small rent-free apartments to students who, in return, provide at least 30 hours per month acting as “good neighbours” — for example, by providing companionship for, or teaching computer skills to, older residents.
In Whiteley village, a mutually supportive community of retired workers in Surrey, well-being and life expectancy are higher than among those who live alone.
Many older people live in under-occupied properties, and a reciprocal arrangement housing younger people in return for support and companionship might simultaneously solve problems of social isolation among the elderly and give access to affordable housing for the young.
At Ripon College, Cuddesdon, where I am training for ordination, the resident community is enriched by the Community of St John Baptist, who bring wisdom and experience to our worship, learning, and living.
Parishes should consider how they can offer older people a richer vision of living in a community. This is likely to include strong social and spiritual activities bringing together the generations, and possibly even some purpose-built accommodation.
AN OBJECTION that some might raise is whether reciprocal living would work for people who require demanding levels of care, such as the approximately 850,000 in the UK who have dementia. One third of those with dementia, however, live on their own, which shows that it is possible to remain independent. We should not allow such people to drift from the orbit of our care and concern. This can be hard when, for example, they begin to act in ways that make us feel uncomfortable.
Eventually, community settings may no longer be appropriate for nursing and social care. As an individual loses his or her sense of self, John Swinton, in Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (SCM Press, 2012), encourages the church to be “a community of attentiveness” in which members of the congregation remind that person that he or she is remembered, just as each of us is remembered by God.
To succeed in our ambition to recreate a sense of reciprocity and “being with”, we must create a vision that is strong enough to engage every generation and give energy to the notion that the most affirming contribution that a community can make is to be truly present for its dependants.
David Candlin is an ordinand in training at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and owns a social-care business in Surrey.