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Welfare services fail to meet population's needs

Women in Academic Medicine Conference

The UK’s ageing population and its families are being failed by a flawed and fragmented health and social support regime, a wide-ranging report by the BMA warns.

The report, Growing Older in the UK, pinpoints how the health and life chances of older people of this and future generations are harmed by holes in the safety net of health, social and other welfare services.

Across six chapters authored by experts, it identifies how older people’s health and that of their carers is affected from experiences throughout their lives as far back as childhood.

‘The experience of childhood trauma is significantly associated with poor mental health in later life,’ one chapter says.

‘Children living in colder homes are more than twice as likely to develop a variety of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.’


Heated homes

The report also pinpoints established links between patients’ social circumstances that influence the quality of their lives significantly.

For instance, more than one in three older people in England (34 per cent) are reported to live in draughty homes, which those on low incomes are unable to heat properly.

Across the UK, excess deaths of older people during the winter months now exceeds those caused by alcohol or road-traffic accidents every year.

The report urges several measures to improve people’s health and well-being as they grow older, including:

  • Action to tackle the social isolation of older people using ‘social prescribing’, a means of doctors referring patients to non-medical and community services, such as councils’ housing departments
  • An effort to improve the diagnosis and under-treatment of older people with mental health problems
  • Better identification and support of informal carers, the family and friends whose needs are often neglected.
  • An emphasis on valuing the ways older people can continue to contribute positively to society.


An over-stretched system

BMA board of science chair Parveen Kumar said far more needed to be done by the Government to support ‘greater coordination and integration of health and social care services and ensure that these services can cope with the growing needs of older patients’.

‘The UK’s ageing population is being failed by a fragmented and over-stretched health and social care system,’ she added.

‘In particular, we must tackle the under-diagnosis and under-treatment of mental health conditions in older adults, to make sure that their mental health is treated as importantly as their physical health.

‘We know that only a small proportion of older people with depression seek treatment, with research suggesting that although 20 to 40 per cent of older people in the community show signs of depression meriting treatment, only 4 to 8 per cent consult a GP.

‘We owe it to these patients to turn this around.’

Professor Kumar added that society should also consider the families and loved ones who care for the increasing ageing population.

‘In the UK today, there are a staggering 6.5 million people providing a level of unpaid care to a relative, close friend or neighbour,’ she said.

‘Caring is something that most people do, but which they are not prepared or trained for, and which can have a devastating impact on carers' lives in terms of work, health, income, family and other relationships.

‘We must ensure there is a focus on a carer-friendly health services, which supports carers not only to look after their loved one, but to look after their own health and well-being as well.

‘With demand on health and social care services increasing, the Government must outline long-term solutions that provide the security older people need and deserve.’

Find out more about ageing in the UK

Read the report

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