Welsh Government urged to tackle Wales’ “silent killer”

Welsh Conservatives are calling on the Welsh Government to keep its promise to improve integration between health and social care in order to tackle Wales’ “silent killer”: isolation and loneliness amongst older people.

Shadow Health Secretary, Angela Burns, wants to see a national debate about the way society treats older people. She believes that the language used when discussing older people is “too negative”, and wants to see greater recognition of the immense value that older people among us add to society.

Angela Burns said a public discussion of attitudes to older people would highlight the issue of isolation and loneliness, which can be at its height during the Christmas holidays.

It’s an issue which was discussed at the National Assembly’s Health Committee during an appearance by the Older People’s Commissioner, Sarah Rochira recently.

During the committee session, Ms Rochira said that since her appointment she had been surprised by the scale and breadth of loneliness and isolation amongst older people.

She said [from transcript]:

“It’s called the ‘silent killer’, and it destroys your soul as well, let alone the physical impact it has on people’s health.

“It’s the same as smoking 17 cigarettes a day. We have all eyes on stopping smoking, yet it’s just as devastating for people. It can happen to anybody.”

Ms Burns said:

“It is right to note the importance of tackling isolation and loneliness because it is a genuine public health risk, and a ticking time bomb.

“Dementia is now Britain’s biggest killer and we need to take steps to improve the quality of life of older people in society, many of whom will live alone.

“A national debate about the way we treat older people will highlight these issues and hopefully move us on from the type of discussion which enables older people to be framed as ‘bed blockers’.

“It’s time those attitudes were challenged, and it is high time we kept our promise as a society to improve social care.”

Ms Burns also stressed the need to “bridge the generational gap” between young and old. She said:

“Some young people blame the lack of money for free university tuition on too much being spent on old people. Whilst some old people only see the young as a threat. It’s a catch 22 situation, almost entirely based on a fundamental misunderstanding between the two. If we want a cohesive society we need to bridge the generational gap”.

With life expectancy now significantly higher, many discussions around older people inevitably focus on public services – with longer lives having an additional cost in terms of public resources. But Ms Burns says negative terms such as ‘bed blocker’ miss the point, and are unfair on older people who have been let down by public services.

Instead, she wants to see a greater focus from the Welsh Government on developing innovative policy solutions to improve quality of life for older people – including the long promised, but never delivered integration of health and social care.

Mrs Burns said:

“People are living longer – into their 80s, 90s and beyond – and older people are going further to support society than ever before, through unpaid care, community work, childcare and performing volunteer roles.

“Sadly, that vital contribution is all too often forgotten when public services are being discussed. Particularly during winter where that discussion inevitably turns to creaking resources, ‘bed blocking’, and elderly people in hospital through falls.

“It is high time that we put that right. The individuals are not the problem, it’s the system that is meant to support them.

“No-one wants to stay in hospital, and despite decades of discussion the Welsh Government has made very little progress improving integration between health and social care, which is after all what makes it difficult for older patients to return to their homes after a hospital visit.”


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