I have been lucky enough to visit his final resting place, a peaceful memorial parkland amid the chaos that is Delhi, which not only houses his remains but also dozens of plaques upon which his sayings, reflecting the way he lived his life, are displayed.
There are many which cause you to stop and think but one in particular seems the right way to start this week’s column. “The true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
And after the year we have had, and many continue to have, there has never been a sentiment that is more apt.
The one thing surely we have learned along the way in this terrible pandemic is that caring should be at the heart of how we live our lives. Because lives can change in an instant, particularly the lives of those who are elderly and vulnerable.
There cannot be one reader who would disagree that among the countless people who have suffered the most during this pandemic, are those that have been forced to leave the familiarity and comfort of their own homes and live amongst total strangers because they can no longer look after themselves.
Life in our care homes has been truly awful. We have all seen the footage of frightened faces at the windows, of tears of confusion as to why loved ones cannot come inside to hug and hold. We have read of the dedication of staff who have left their own homes to move in and care for them. And sadly we know how many have fallen victim to the worse health crisis the world has suffered in living memory.
Sadly, many of those who died did so alone save those paid to look after them. And it breaks my heart to think how abandoned they must have felt.
Well, they have been abandoned for far too long, and long before the Covid crisis. Politician after politician has failed to get to grips with a social care system which penalises those who have worked hard and saved all their lives because they are frail and weak and can no longer take care of themselves.
Now as the world, or our world, gets back to some semblance of normality it is time to hold them to account for promises made, promises which remain as yet unfulfilled.
When Boris Johnson stood on the steps of No 10 Downing Street as a newly elected Prime Minister his words were welcomed, having just lost my own mum in a care home. Her meagre savings had been depleted, paying first for carers to help her at home for several years, and then for the last year of her life in a care home as Alzheimer’s took hold and brought us as a family to crisis point.
Most of the residents in that home were paid for by the council, but because she still owned her own house mum had to pay so we paid it because it was the best place for her and she was happy there.
But it felt wrong, it was wrong that this hard working woman who had lived as a widow for 20 years, had never had expensive holidays or fancy cars, who still had the same three-piece suite she’d had for 40 years and who lived in a small semi in Bradford worth less than £150,000, should be faced with selling that home to pay for the last years of her life.
I fought tooth and nail to get her funded on medical grounds. What was worse was I had to prove that an elderly lady aged 91 who could not talk, could not walk, could not feed herself, who not only had Alzheimer’s, but a heart condition, never ending mini strokes and more, was deserving of help.
I won just three weeks before she died but of course the £30,000 plus she had paid was never refunded. And I, though devastated, was just glad her suffering was over.
But what I can never get back is the time I spent wrangling, arguing, begging, indeed weeping, instead of sitting with her holding her hand. That was where I should have been.
One year on and here was a Prime Minister telling me all we had gone through was wrong and he would fix it, that he was here to protect us all, our parents and our grandparents from “the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the cost of care”. He would, he said, solve the crisis. Indeed it was his “job” to do so.
I fully accept he has had other things on his mind since then. I totally agree his priority has been the ravaging effects of coronavirus.
But who has suffered more than those in care homes? What’s more, when he stood on those steps on Downing Street he told us he had a ‘clear plan’ already prepared. It would seem he did not if you consider what was nothing more than a cursory mention in this week’s Queen Speech. So the ‘plan’ wasn’t there at all then.
My mum did not have to sell her humble home to pay for her care because the simple truth is she died before she had to, or before we had to endure another review of her failing health to secure funding. But since Boris made his promise in 2019 thousands of people have done so, paying billions of pounds when he promised they wouldn’t have to.
No one is saying those who can shouldn’t help to pay for their old age. Just not everything. So let’s put a cap on it and be done with it. “A true measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
May I humbly suggest to the Prime Minister – you made a promise, so keep it. And perhaps stick Gandhi’s words on the Cabinet office door until you do.