The UK Government’s decision to spend an estimated £10m on the ‘state funeral’ for former PM Margaret Thatcher faced fresh controversy today. We now know the government has been rejecting thousands of applications for Pauper Funerals made on behalf of ordinary UK pensioners who have died alone without money left to pay for their own burial. It seems Thatcher might be the only pensioner the UK government will support to die with dignity.
Rise in Pauper Funerals
Those of the Thatcherite persuasion will often be heard raising the issues of the Winter of Discontent as the ultimate failure of the socialist idea of government. The common cry goes ‘we couldn’t even bury our dead’. Whilst bodies were left unburied due to strike in 1978, they are being left unburied due to poverty in 2013.
There was a 6.9% rise in requests for the Government Funereal Fund to bury pensioners last year. The government rejected over half of all applications made. Even those who were successful won an average £1,217, whilst average funereal costs have risen to £3,091.
To put this in some perspective, the UK government could have buried almost one thousand pensioners who died in poverty this year, for what it is paying to bury a millionaire former PM who died in her bed at the Ritz hotel.
This is not the first year that the government has done these pensioners out of a decent send off either. The Department of Work and Pensions rejected 34,000 applications for funereal support in 2011, a rise of 7%.
It is bad enough that our elderly people are unable to die in dignity, but increasingly the final years of life are spent watching the pennies and waiting to die.
Pensioner poverty did not suddenly become an issue as a result of ideological austerity. Pensioners have been having a tough time for a long time. The number of pensioners living in poverty fell in 1997/8 and again in 2004/5 but not improved significantly since. However, the Coalition government will spend £250m less on older people between 2010-15 than was spent between 2004-5 whilst the number of people over 85 has risen by two thirds, to 630,000.
At the same time, the cost of living for pensioners has risen 25% over the last five years.
The cost of living is going up, the number of elderly people is going up, and the support given to them is going down, rapidly. There is only one outcome to this policy: rising poverty in old age.
Crisis of Care
With the population of elderly people rising as more of us are lucky enough to make it to old age, managing down the costs of care home places and in home care, whilst ensuring the highest standards of care should be a central policy of any government. However, the coalition policies seem to be achieving quite the opposite aim.
In the UK today over 90% of all care home provision (up from 61% in 1990) to elderly people is in the independent/private sector, after the public sector was encouraged to outsource provision in an effort to cut costs. The same period has seen an astronomical rise is the cost of care home places. The average cost of a single room in a care home has risen to over £27,000 a year. This is higher than the average UK annual wage (£26,000) and more than double the average annual pension income of £13,208. In fact since 2011, care home costs have risen at twice the rate of inflation, whilst standards of care have slipped.
As a result, the homes this generation bought under Thatcher are not nest eggs for surviving relatives, but simply collateral. It is estimated that 40,000 elderly people a year are selling their homes for just this purpose, in aims to cover the average £100,000 care home costs to cover the final years of their lives.
Whilst the Coalition plan to implement a £75,000 cap in the contributions a person makes to their care home costs, a) they have stalled the policy until after the next election and b) it won’t include accommodation costs, which are the bulk of the issue. This is no help at all.
One might expect that for these breathtaking sums we might have the finest care homes in the world. Yet, last year the regulatory body for the UKs care homes (The Care Quality Commission) published a damning report that showed that more than half of all elderly and people with disabilities in care homes were being denied basic care.
The report showed that people suffering incontinence were waiting more than two weeks for a consultation on their condition in more than 40% of care homes surveyed. One might think perhaps this was some failing, but this was classed as success! Two in every five Homes surveyed set themselves a target of 90 days (that’s three months!), to make such a basic check up for a resident.
More worrying is that the data used for the study only covers 2010, so does not even take into account the sweeping cuts implemented since. This is the sorry state of care the elderly lived in prior to the ideological austerity we have seen sweeping the UKs public services.
Indications suggest things have become worse; over 40 care homes were closed down by the Care Quality Commission last year for providing sub standard care including: verbal & physical abuse of patients, medicines not being managed safely, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of medical and nursing care. Deaths like that of 81 year old Gloria Foster also provide a damning verdict on a privatised system of care, which simply doesn’t.
Turning Our Backs on the Elderly
During this period of imposed national mourning, there has been much ado about those who dare to criticise either Thatcher herself, the legacy of her ideology and policy, or the state funded pomp and military honour being applied to her send off.
The police yesterday ‘approved’ plans for those wishing to express their dissent to line the Funeral route with their backs turned to the coffin. One would struggle to conjure a more fitting tribute, not only to Thatcher but to this current iteration of neoliberal politicians, who have so clearly turned their backs on generations of elderly people up and down the land.
If you have elderly neighbours, get to know them. We don’t have to wait for the government to care, before we do. Exchange numbers, be kind, take notice.
AGE UK – great charity and hive of information. You can donate, keep informed on key issues and make a difference.
Sign the petition against a state funeral for Margaret Thatcher and at least go on the record with your opposition.
Campaign to End Loneliness – an inspirational idea to create connections between the generations and put an end to loneliness in old age.
Compassion In Care – seeks to ensure that care is compassionate across the country, check out their website to see how you can support.