The Daily Telegraph
Rantzen: let OAPS donate fuel allowance to the NHS
PENSIONERS should be allowed to donate their winter fuel allowance directly to the NHS, Dame Esther Rantzen has said.
The campaigner and advocate for older people’s rights said there was substantial goodwill to the NHS from pensioners, and they might be more willing to forgo their allowance if they knew the money went directly there.
“I don’t know anybody that hasn’t benefited from the health service,” she said, adding that there should be a tickbox on the winter fuel allowance claim form to state that the claimant would like the money to go to the NHS.
She said while it is possible to refuse the allowance, it would be more appealing if donors knew exactly where the money would otherwise go.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Dame Esther said she believed in “hypothecating” health service funding, which means a tax could be charged that payers would know goes directly to a specific service.
At present, pensioners aged over 80 receive a winter fuel allowance of £300, while those under 80 receive £200, regardless of income. Dame Esther added that greater links were needed between social care and health, as her charity, Silver Line, had encountered older people struggling to cope with the complexity of the two systems.
The Government publishes a social care green paper in the next few months, outlining plans for funding health and social care. In March last year Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, announced an extra £2billion of funding for the social care system. And this year Jeremy Hunt, the Health and Social Care Secretary, hinted that a cap on care costs could limit a person’s lifetime spending on social care.
A report by the National Audit Office last year found a £1billion shortfall in public funding was being plugged by higher care-home fees charged to wealthier, self-funding residents.
Social care leaders have previously complained that the health service receives more funding than social care.
Technology is touted by many as the saviour of the social care system. But Dame Esther Rantzen, a tireless campaigner against loneliness and isolation, is sceptical. The 77-year-old, who began drawing attention to the plight of older people after she lost her husband Desmond in 2000 and found herself alone, is adamant that the importance of proper company should not be forgotten.
“Nothing replaces people,” she says. “All this remote care that you can do where you can track the little old person wandering from the kettle to the fridge so you know that they’re still up and about, I suppose that’s OK as a sort of fail-safe, but nothing replaces company.
“I can imagine a spaniel as company. I’m not a cat person but I can imagine a Persian cat could be company. But I cannot see myself sitting next to a robot watching television.” Instead, she told The Daily
Telegraph, the Government, local authorities and the NHS should focus on making sure older people see a friendly face who can call by for a cup of tea – not just to check on their safety, but to make sure they are enjoying life.
In one case she knows of, a fireman in Merseyside goes around to check on elderly people who live alone.
“We need somebody who cares about them enough to visit them, say once a month, to say ‘How are you coping? How are you feeling? Have you got any problems that need sorting? What do you do for fun’?” Volunteers could be trained to do this, every month or six weeks, she suggests. A firefighter is a perfect candidate, because their presence is reassuring but not intrusive, she said.
Asking what someone does for fun can be “very illuminating”, the journalist and TV presenter says.
“It is a real tragedy how often someone will say to you ‘I haven’t had fun for years. Fun is for young people’.”
Older people are neglected, partly because they hate to rely on others, having been “self-supporting all their lives”, she says, but also as a consequence of the social upheaval which followed the Swinging Sixties.
“I lived through the Sixties and the youth revolution, and it was excellent, because up until then young people didn’t have a voice and it was lovely that they were liberated – I would say that because I was 20 in the Sixties, and that was fine by me.
“But an unintended consequence may have been that something had to give, and what had to give was the position of older people, the respect they used to have.”
Now, older people are blamed for all kinds of social ills. “You’ve got the bad publicity of bed-blockers, house blockers, baby boomers taking all the cash, and all the privileges, which makes them reluctant to ask for help,” she says. Her own grandmother, she says, was “absolutely the heart of the family”.
Nowadays, society is more selfish. “Everyone’s so busy, and very often they have to move away.”
In response, the Silver Line, her own charity, has piloted a Silver Connects service that helps put older people in touch with charities and services that can make their lives easier and more enjoyable.
Since it launched in November 2015, more than 1,000 people have been helped with problems like managing online accounts and making their homes more accessible.
Its successes include helping an elderly woman who had been trapped in her own home for two years, reliant on a walking aid and unable to navigate the two large steps outside her house.
“She’d been promised a ramp by the local authority. Two years – nothing. We got in touch with her local council, and it took two days to put the ramp in,” she says. The woman was typical of callers in that she didn’t want to “make a fuss”, Dame Esther says. them are too complicated for older people to navigate effectively, she has found. Some are online-only, leaving them out of reach for those who are not confident about using the internet.
In some cases, she claims, the complexity feels deliberate – a “way of reducing demand by making it so difficult to know who to ring, and how to ring, or who to write to, and where to get the form, and how to apply online”.
Greater links between the NHS and social care system, an idea supported by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, “has to happen”, she says, and will “help both services enormously”.
“Local partnerships are the best. What you need is local heads of trusts and local authorities to decide that they are going to work together.
“Get their people together and make sure that when there’s a crisis in someone’s life, both sets of practitioners know about it. And then what you actually need is the neighbour, the volunteer, the person who just bangs on a door and says, ‘How are we today? Have you got the kettle on?’”
Suggesting measures to pay for the initiative, Dame Esther said pensioners would be more willing to forgo their winter fuel allowance if they knew the money was going directly to the NHS.
While it was possible to refuse the allowance, the option would be more appealing, she said, if the elderly could choose exactly where their winter fuel allowance was spent.
She bemoans the lack of a minister for older people, something she says she has always thought should exist.
An older person could even take on the role themselves, she says.
Her own charity, and many others, depend on the work of older volunteers, who tend to be “reliable, and turn up on time”, but “at the moment, older people are sliced into different kinds of problem and not seen as a resource”.
‘I can imagine a spaniel as company. I can imagine a cat could be company. But I cannot see myself sitting next to a robot’