Upfront and personal – the care crisis in Britain revealed


Nearly one million people in the UK have dementia and by 2040 that figure will have doubled.

Photo credit: Shuttetstock

If the man in apron and rubber gloves washing the old lady’s back in a care home seemed familiar to BBC TV viewers that was probably because he looked very much like a former government minister in a sharp suit and carrying a briefcase.

And they would be right.

This was Ed Balls, a Cabinet member in the governments of Labour Premiers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and one-time shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What he was doing at St Cecilia’s Care Home in Scarborough was highlighting the growing problem of care for the elderly, with numbers of helpless old folk increasing, workers receiving scandalously low wages (£9.50 per hour, just above the minimum wage), and a quarter of homes facing bankruptcy.

Nearly one million people in the UK have dementia and by 2040 that figure will have doubled.

Fell out of bed

One of these, in Scarborough, was Frank, who frequently fell out of bed and would occasionally lash out at his carers.

Phyllis needed help to wash and dress. “I don’t like this old age,” she said sadly.

Another old lady was clearly terrified as she was helped carefully downstairs.

The cameras visited Balls’s own mother, Carolyn, in the care home where she has lived for three years with vascular dementia.

However much her son cajoled her, she didn’t smile once.

Catheters, bed pans, pyjamas, nappies, crutches, feeding… across two weeks working as an ordinary carer at St Cecilia’s, Balls saw upfront and personal the problems faced by employees widely thought of as second-class and unskilled.

“We are ‘only carers,’” said one, “‘only carers.’ That’s the phrase that hurts.”

Said Alison, bitterly, “Unskilled workers us. We’re nothing, are we?”

The second section of Balls’s two-part documentary revealed the problems faced by people caring for their kin in their own homes and the difficulties of visiting carers – the low pay, time demands and exhaustingly long hours.

Confronted with all this reality, Balls expressed regret and guilt that he did not do more for the care sector during his time in government.

And two hours of painful viewing left viewers in no doubt that the present government needs to address the issue as a priority because it will only get worse.

As the forthright Alison told Balls, “You’ll need care one day and I won’t be wiping your bum.”

* * *

Ken May, 67, has lived in the council house in Gateshead since 1955, when he was one year old.

But lately he let things go.

When his mains electricity was cut off, he used a petrol generator and gas canisters instead.

Rubbish accumulated in his kitchen and he allowed the garden to get out of control.

At a court hearing, Mr May was given 28 days to leave the house unless he showed evidence that he had cleaned it up.

It was then that volunteers came to his rescue. Some 20 to 30 people heard of his story and came from all over the northern region.

A young man with a trimmer cut down the brambles and shaped his hedge. Three women clubbed together and bought him a new bed.

The gas canisters were moved out and the house repainted.

Said Mr May, “A barber saw the thing on Facebook and came to my house and gave me a haircut and a beard trim.”

As a result, Gateshead Council said it would not apply for a warrant of possession for the next six months provided he kept his home clean and tidy, reconnected the electricity and removed the gas canisters.

“The kindness of strangers,” said Mr May. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

* * *

Here’s something worth knowing: The best time to go to bed for the sake of your health is between 10pm and 11pm, according to researchers who studied 88,000 volunteers.

Synchronising sleep to match our internal body clock and its natural 24-hour rhythm reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The UK Biobank collected data on sleep and wake times from volunteers wearing a wristwatch-like device, then followed up what happened to the test subjects over six years.

What they found was that some 3,000 developed cardiovascular diseases and many of them were people who went to bed earlier or later than the ideal time.

* * *

Little Jimmy was unusually attentive to the Sunday sermon, where the preacher said God would answer if you prayed really hard.

Afterwards, with eyes devoutly closed, Jimmy kept muttering: “Tokyo, Tokyo.”

Questioned by his dad, the boy explained that his school class had been asked to name the capital of Mexico and he said Tokyo.

So he was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of Mexico, as the preacher said.

* * *

It was a long sermon and a man in the front pew fell asleep.

 The preacher said to his wife, “Wake him up.”

 She replied, “You put him to sleep, you wake him up.”


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