Martin Charlesworth
Social care – the growing crisis

Earlier this year I was at a meeting between senior local authority officers and representatives of the voluntary sector. I listened carefully to what was being said. There were the usual words of appreciation for the work of the voluntary sector as it rises to fill growing gaps in public services. This is a commonplace now. All over the country the creativity and energy of the voluntary sector has been evident and noticed. The age of financial constraint is upon us and won’t be changing anytime soon.

Then as the meeting moved on, the Chief Executive of that particular local authority got to his feet. He was candid and blunt about the extraordinary measures his authority was having to take to cope with government cuts in local authority financing. He then turned to the specific issue of social care. He predicted that within a few years there would be a £10 million deficit in his council’s social care budget – and he saw no obvious way of making up that deficit. He invited partnership with the voluntary sector to help the local authority meet its legal commitments.

These are extraordinary days.

At the end of the meeting I sought out the Chief Executive and followed up what he had said. Did he really mean it? Yes he did. Was he as concerned as he sounded? Yes he was. Was he as open to new ways of doing things as he suggested? Apparently so.

It came as no surprise to me when the issue of social care came into the national headlines last month (see here and here, for examples). Given the sharp rise in the ageing population and the shortage of funding, there is a time-bomb of a crisis growing across the nation. Experts predict systemic problems and the danger of the collapse of the whole system in the foreseeable future. The government has a huge responsibility to address this issue – and quickly.

This is also a great challenge to the churches. Churches are rightly known for caring for the elderly in the context of our local church life. Our recent research report has highlighted the great work done by churches across the nation. However, something more radical is called for. Churches could become the key visiting and support agency for elderly people in their own homes; churches could use their medical and nursing professionals to work (in a voluntary capacity) with the elderly; churches could engage in specialist dementia care work; and churches could even enter into the world of providing social care agencies of their own…

There are encouraging signs. A few churches are beginning to see, and respond to, the scale of this immense challenge. But there is a long, long way to go...

Click here for our 'issues' page about care of older people.