New Year Hope
Updated: Jan 7
Happy New Year! My well-thumbed copy of Justin Welby's book Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018) accompanied me into this new year and provided much to think about and to be optimistic about as we start 2020.
Ageing and the issue of caring for older members of the population feature prominently in the Archbishop of Canterbury's exposition of what makes for 'community, courage and stability' in society. At the heart of all he outlines is the story of hope that centres on Jesus Christ.
A grain of rice
For example, I was particularly struck by the inspiring account of the imprisonment for more than a decade in Vietnam, after the Communist takeover in 1974, of Francois-Xavier, Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan. The priest was sustained throughout his ordeal by the presence of Christ and by Mass, which he said each day, consuming a grain of rice for Communion and 'enough rice wine to hold in the palm of his hand'. Welby says the prisoner 'was sustained by the story, the narrative hope that centres on the resurrection of Christ… the most powerful narrative shift in world history'.
Focusing on the inequalities in British society, Welby cites statistics from 2012 to 2014 which show the wealthiest 10 per cent in Britain owned 45 per cent of aggregate household wealth, while the least wealthy 50 per cent owned just 9 per cent of household wealth. Figures since then have stabilised or slightly fallen, he added.
In this context, we see how carers are especially hard hit in the current economic climate. 'Those who can afford care, pay for it, and those who are more vulnerable and cannot afford it, have to put themselves in an even more vulnerable position and give care freely. This is a profound and yet hidden injustice,' he writes.
You may recall that Lambeth Palace hosted a day on faith and mental health in the autumn. The Archbishop was bringing together many different people who know the causes and the strains on people's mental health. A key issue, of course, is loneliness and social isolation.
I was there to help delegates explore effects on the older generation in a workshop. In this book, Welby rightly states how 'family breakdown, serial monogamy, and unstable relationships all lead to isolation, and the resulting loneliness is often behind depression and other forms of mental health problems in older people'.
Age is not respected
He explores the so-called 'burden' older people represent for younger generations and how such stresses lead to more calls for euthanasia (assisted suicide) or to a culture in which older people might feel a necessity to volunteer to die: 'Today's culture does not honour old age, but sees it at best as an inconvenience. Anyone who doubts that needs to consider the regular calls to legalise euthanasia, without adequate consideration of the risk that – in a society where age is not respected – the possibility of assisted suicide will too easily become the duty to ask for death. Leading figures in the various groups campaigning for assisted suicide have pointed to the increasing number of elderly and the economic burden that represents as a reason to support their cause.'
Call for a culture change
Despite this, he sees signs of hope (of which Anna Chaplaincy for Older People is undoubtedly a part). 'The churches, through education, chaplaincy and the parish system, are in a good place to both draw attention to issues of public health and also to be effective in supporting imaginative and community-based approaches to resolving them.'
Concluding his chapter on 'Health: healing our brokenness', he reiterates: 'It is essential that the dignity of all is taught clearly through education and example; nothing less is required than a significant culture change, especially towards the elderly.'
Sort out care homes
By way of a footnote, I'm grateful to correspondent, Ann Wills, who sends me snippets of news about older people and carers from time to time and brought this letter, published recently in the Daily Mail under the headline 'Sort Out Care Homes', to my attention:
'The seemingly intractable problem of providing social care that is caring, efficient and fair must be a priority. As a former officer for the Department for Work and Pensions I had to visit claimants in nursing homes. A more robust regime of safeguarding adults and the removal of the inequity of forcing residents to sell their homes to fund care can only be achieved by root and branch reform. The profit motive should end. Making fat profits from the assets of care home residents is obscene. There should be a 10-year programme of building or acquiring buildings that can be adapted, run by people employed by the State – an extension of the NHS, if you like. And cost? A dedicated social care tax should be introduced, with every citizen required to make a monthly contribution, the amount determined by their income. It will be costly and take time to roll out, but I believe it would have public support. We have a debt of gratitude to many of our elderly citizens who have served the country admirably in peace and war, and we have a moral duty to provide safe and comfortable care provision for those who can no longer live independently in their own home. This will ensure they have peace of mind knowing their children’s hard-earned inheritance will be secure.'
Peter Henrick, Birmingham (December 28, 2019)