The welfare state’s forgotten army?

Photo by Sabine van Ero, courtesy of pixabay

The North East like other regions across the UK has an ‘ageing population’. This means that an increasing number of the population are elderly – aged 65 or over. In 1961, just under 12% were old. By 2021, it’s estimated that over a fifth will be over 65 due to declining fertility and increased life expectancy. Health and adult social care services are in crisis as they try to meet the needs of an ageing region. As Gareth Howells, CEO of the Carers Trust notes, ”successive governments have failed to tackle the social care funding crisis. The result is a broken social care system.”

 Yet contrary to popular belief the ‘family’, in whatever form, still cares informally for the old. As the Newcastle University sociologist Deborah Chambers argues in her book, ‘A Sociology of Family Life‘, unpaid family carers are shouldering ever more of the burden of providing care in the community. The value to the state of the care they provide to older family members is £132b a year. Whether the ‘family’ can continue to perform this role in the future is questionable.

For some an ageing population is a problem. More older people means greater demands on health, social services, social security and housing: above all the ‘family’ especially women who provide the bulk of informal community care.

Yet this view is one-sided. The majority of older people – 60 to 75 are fit and healthy. Most have an active life. According to Age UK their most common pastime is watching TV, seeing and caring for relatives, particularly grandchildren and friends. Seven out of 10 like shopping, four out 10 enjoyed gardening and over half take a regular walk.

The older people get, the more likely they are to live alone. Even when living alone, most older people have regular contact with relatives, especially adult children. It is older people who have no children who tend to be socially isolated and need state support to enable them to stay in their own homes, or in supported sheltered housing.


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The notion that the ‘family’ no longer cares about its older kin and has abdicated its responsibilities to the state is misplaced. Pre-industrial society is often portrayed as ‘The Golden Age’ of the family and ageing, when older relatives were respected and cared for by their own families. The assumption was that people lives in ‘extended’ type families. This is a myth.

Historical research by Peter Laslett notes that the small nuclear family was the norm in pre-industrial England. Late marriages, delayed childbirth and early death was prevalent. The marital age for men was 28 and for women 24. Most people’s life-expectancy was 45. To reach old age was comparatively rare. It was not till the 19th century that the ‘classic extended family’ assumed importance, particularly in working-class communities in the North.

Kin provided mutual support to one another. The birth of grandchildren increased the number of close ties between the elderly and their adult children. Older relatives acted as ‘baby-minders’ while mothers and fathers worked outside the home in factories and mills.

By the mid-20th Century, the traditional nuclear family or ‘cereal packet family’ emerged across the UK due to social and geographical changes. Large numbers of households were made up of a working husband, stay-at-home wife and two kids. For some sociologists like Ronald Fletcher the family had become a self-supported isolated unit cut off from other relatives including the elderly. The development of the post welfares state with the modernisation of society, it was argued, resulted in a sharp decline in family support for older people.

Yet there’s little empirical support to support the view that modernisation stripped the family of its core functions. The family cared for its older members throughout the post-war decades. In an era of increased ”family and household diversity” it still does fulfil its primary obligations.

Most older people are independent and are determined to stand on their own two feet. However, when they became frail and infirm, support is usually provided by their spouse or adult children. Clearly help is more easily provided if their daughters, or sons live nearby. Most older people still live near to at least one of their children.

In the last decade or so, there’s some evidence of a decline in face-to-face contact between the elderly and their adult children. This is due to increasing distances between kin. However, this is partly compensated through telephone, e-mail, facebook and skype, which can provide ”intimacy at a distance”.

In our ageing society family structures have changed profoundly. Less than 8% of people belong to the conventional nuclear family which was the norm in the 1950s. Soaring divorce and separation rates have led to step-families and lone-parenthood. Dual-income families are on the up. Remaining single has become a post-modern life-style choice for some.

Family types have become longer and thinner. With fewer children being born, there are fewer brothers, sisters or cousins. With increased life-expectancy, families have become elongated – stretched out to include three or four generations. The result is the so-called ‘beanpole family’.

About six million adults aged 45 to 64 are caring informally for and older parent. Four million are married or cohabiting women. Many are under 24/7 pressure with their caring duties undervalued. Few receive adequate government support. The carer’s allowance is just £67.25 a week. With huge demographic changes forecast coupled with fluid family structures, some have questioned whether relatives can provide the support that is urgently needed.

Central government has promised a white paper on social care funding. Yet Government need to develop a fully-funded family policy with state support to our region’s older population whilst recognising the invaluable help that informal carers give – the welfare state’s forgotten army.

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