With new research showing a major gap in elderly care provision, Sarah Freeman reports on how older people are doing it for themselves through a new scheme in Leeds.
Iris Beadnell is typical of many women her age.
At 83-years-old she suffers from arthritis, has long term health problems and while she is not ready to give up her independence just yet, she knows there are difficult issues ahead. For the last five years, following the death of her husband, she has lived alone in the house they bought more than 30 years ago. It’s a modest property on the edge of south Leeds, but those four walls have a lot of memories. It was where the couple raised their only child, Heather, and the walls and mantelpieces are filled with photographs of birthdays, anniversaries and treasured family holidays.
However, as Iris’ mobility has got worse, she has struggled with the steep steps which lead to her front door. She still makes the effort to go to the local community centre once a week, but she also knows the time may come when she can’t get out.
“It has been a worry and there are certain things I can’t do,” she says. “My husband was the one who looked after the garden. It was his pride and joy, but because of my arthritis I haven’t been able to do the weeding. It had got into a terrible state and I felt I was somehow betraying him.
“I knew I needed to start thinking about the future, but I wasn’t quite sure where to turn. I’d go to bed at night and my head would be buzzing.”
It was why Iris signed up to Silverlinks, effectively an agony aunt service run for the elderly and by the elderly. Staffed by volunteers of a certain age, Iris’s knight in shining armour came in the shape of Ken Watson. At 75, he may have a few years on Iris, but crucially he had also watched his mother and mother-in-law struggle to get the support they needed to live independently. Ken, who lives on the east side of the city, is not the kind to sit back and take no for an answer and over recent years has become something of a champion for the rights of older people.
“The support is there, but it’s often so fragmented that people don’t know where to look or give up trying,” he says. “My mother lived until she was 90, my mother-in-law to 100 and it was a real battle getting them help.
“When I saw what they went through I just thought that there has to be something better than this. The government talks a lot about giving elderly people more choice and about dignity. There’s a lot of rhetoric, but not an awful lot of action.
“The truth is a lot of elderly people could stay in their own homes for much longer if certain adaptations were made, but often getting handrails fitted and replacing baths with showers or wet rooms can take such a long time. I’ve seen people who haven’t been able to wash properly for months because they are so worried about slipping getting in or out of the bath. It’s those kind of things which really strip people of their dignity.”
Since been matched through Silverlinks, which is run by the charity Care and Repair Leeds, the pair have talked about Iris’ plans to downsize and together they’ve visited a number of sheltered housing developments close to where her grandson lives. Ken has recommended Iris contact a gardener through the Leeds Directory
“I know I’m 83, but I don’t want to be surrounded by old people 24 hours a day,” says Iris. “That was my real worry about leaving this place. I don’t feel old or infirm enough to go into a care home. People keep telling me I’ve got rights, but we need help to use them. When you’ve lived in the same place for as many years as I have, the thought of moving is quite frightening and it’s not just about leaving somewhere which has a lot of happy memories.
“I worry about how I will switch my telephone over, about how I will tell the gas and electric companies that I’m moving. There just seems like such an awful lot to do.”
Since he began working as a Silverlinks volunteer they’re the kind of concerns Ken has heard time and again.
“The world has moved on since a lot of older people bought their homes and they fear that if they move they will find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar place not knowing who to contact to get their appliances connected or how to set up direct debits. There is a real need for a moving co-ordinator service which would act as a one-stop shop for people thinking of moving and would prevent them becoming paralysed with fear.”
The Silverlinks pilot scheme has been running for 18 months, but the plan is to now roll it out across the city. The decision comes as new research shows the number of older people needing support will outstrip the number of family members able to provide it within just three years.
Longer-term, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that by 2030 there will be more than two million people aged 65 and over with no child living nearby to support them and has called for the country to build what it described as “new community institutions”.
“Older people can feel under pressure to move out of their home before they are really ready,” says Barbara Bailey from Care and Repair Leeds. “What we realised was that they also have a lot of concerns and worries about the future that they often don’t feel able to share with family members. Sometimes it’s about not wanting to make a fuss and feel guilty about bothering busy sons and daughters with their problems, but some also fear that if they do raise the subject about downsizing that they might end up in a residential home far away from their network of friends.
“Of course we can offer advice, but the benefits of Silverlinks is that they get to talk to someone of their own generation. These are people who have gone through the same life experiences and there is an immediate sense of empathy. Crucially they also have no agenda; they are just there to act as a sounding board.
“From our experience so far, some people decide that they would rather stay in their own homes while others have had their perception of sheltered housing turned on its head. However, just thinking about the future is key.
“The worst thing is to have to make a snap decision. A lot of older people who find themselves in hospital following a fall are suddenly faced with never going back to their old home and instead are discharged into residential care. If they haven’t thought about the future, when their life changes overnight it can make them feel very powerless.
For Iris the hard decision has been made. She has applied to one of the sheltered housing developments she saw with Ken and with plans to put her own house on the market, it’s now just a question of waiting for a place to come up.
“When I do move it won’t be with any sense of joy,” says Iris. “But it won’t be with any sense of fear either. I feel like I’ve had time to come to a decision which is right for me. No one likes to think of themselves as getting older, but it happens to us all.”