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Scottish Parliament Speech: Elder Care (October 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

A month ago, I turned 65. I got letters of congratulation from my German member of Parliament and from the university rector, for I still put in several weekends' unpaid teaching - which is great; I will come back to that point - and examining during our recesses. I seem to be working harder than I have ever done as, besides my MSP duties, in the morning or evening most days I have to care for my parents, who are 91 and 92 and are still in a house that would be rather big for them if I was not around. I enjoy that work and I appreciate the different perspective that caring has given me, although at times it can be a crazy egg dance.

Home care of the elderly in Scotland costs local authorities, gross, about £1.5 billion per annum. That is roughly the size of the share - proportionate to population - that Scottish bankers got of the £21 billion that was divvied up into bonuses in the glorious year 2006 to spend on multiple houses, yachts, huge watches, four-wheel drives and so on. In Germany, we always got the Financial Times of a Saturday, including a magazine called How to Spend It, which my wife used to brandish at me, saying, "Aren't you lucky that you're married to me and that I don't want one of these?" I notice that the publication is still as healthy as it was before the crisis. I mention that because, in my four years looking after the old folk in Melrose, I have never met socially any of the numerous four-wheel drivers who set out through the village looking as if they are going to cross the Gobi desert, whereas my parents are dependent on plenty of women carers who have rather small cars, if they drive at all.

As I have implied, caring has a lot to do with housing. A good point about the council housing system is that it created the possibility of our having a policy that caters for people at all stages of life, particularly those who are widowed or less mobile. Throughout Scotland, there are groups of houses - compact, convenient for shops and well insulated - that were built in the 1950s or 1960s for the elderly. I have my doubts whether our owner-occupied free-for-all has provided anything better.

There are societies in which care happened in an in-built, rough-and-ready way, such as India, Russia or Ireland, where old folk lived in great houses as part of extended families. That sort of family clan was actually closer to the historical Scottish clan than the English nuclear family. We learn that from a valuable book, "The Causes of Progress," by the French-Scots social anthropologist Emmanuel Todd. That type of organisation could provide a model for the present day.

The space and income of the elderly in our society is under unrelenting attack. There is also the pension funds crisis, the collapse of what had once been reliable shares, the closure of local shops, bus routes, churches and pubs, not to mention the deterioration of daytime TV - anyone for Jeremy Kyle or, mysteriously, "Postman Pat" in Gaelic in the morning?

Lloyds Banking Group's desire - I am not the first to refer to this - to curb the charitable foundation that it inherited from the Trustee Savings Bank shows exactly what we should not be doing. The effect on Scottish charitable organisations, including those aiding the elderly, would be extremely harmful, especially as their clients are already suffering from the recession.

That leads me to the notion that we ought to try to revive the mutual and civic forms of saving and insurance, since aggressive, profit-driven finance has shown itself unfit for purpose. Its decay shows how little integrated our society has become. If anything, our ageing society needs more funding of charitable organisations, but charity is not enough. As Shona Robison pointed out, those who move into retirement now and in the future will have different expectations and requirements, with the emphasis above all on independence.

I stress - as I have done in previous debates - that European countries gain a lot from the commitment of young people to undertaking a year of social service between school and university. One of the delights of teaching in continental universities is the fact that the young people are more mature by the time that they reach the university system.

We must make it a priority that home carers - especially relatives - receive assistance, information and respite time to protect those for whom they care and their own physical and mental health. We must ensure that councils choose care providers that provide good-quality care and that instruments and effective feedback exist for the customer as well as for the council.

However, things cannot stop there. Scotland's elderly also require a society that is fit for their purpose and simple improvements to be made in public transport, such as regular clock-face timetables. The timetables in the Scottish Borders have changed six times this year. Imagine how difficult it must be for elderly people to find out when their bus is going to arrive to take them to the post office or the Co-op. Strengthening local communities and making post offices, shops and community centres more accessible will benefit the elderly and maintain their participation in society. That will benefit not just them, but all of us.

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