Like most people in job interviews, I’ve been asked “what am I most proud of?” or “what is my greatest achievement?” well as you’re reading this blog I assume you’re interested so I’ll tell you; it was my involvement in a court case when I worked at what was Age Concern Richmond upon Thames. I worked there running an advice & advocacy service and one day was visited by a very angry man who had come to get advice about his mother. His mother had been sectioned into hospital under Section 3 of the 1983 Mental Health Act (amended in 2007). The hospital had decided she was now fit for discharge and social service had said she needed residential care and as she was a homeowner, she would have to pay for it. Her son didn’t want her to go into residential care or to have the house sold, the way he saw it, once the house was sold his mother could never come home again. For me though, there was another very clear issue; my very first job had been as an advocate with Mind who gave me brilliant training on the Mental Health Act and the various sections therein. I knew that anyone under a section 3 was entitled to aftercare under section 117- and for that aftercare to be free. I challenged the care manager who referred it to their manager who consulted the legal dept – who then told me politely to go away. I consulted with the late much missed Pauline Thompson from Age Concern England who supported me entirely and got me in touch with the Public Law Project. The PLP took on the case and the result was R v LB Richmond ex parte Watson and in 1999 it was confirmed that people entitled to care under section 117 could not be charged. The decision affected hundreds possibly thousands of mostly older people who previously had been charged for care. Afterwards the manager of the social work team met me for lunch and told me that they all knew I was right and was glad we had taken the council to court. We had the power to challenge that they did not.
What does this have to do with anything? Well one of the things about ageing without children is how closely the personal and the political are bound up. People have suggested to me that AWOC is really a vehicle for me to deal with my own childlessness and that really there is no role for the state here. I beg to differ very strongly.
As an advice and advocacy worker I spend every day dealing with people on a one to one basis and the repetition of the problems was depressing. Houses left unrepaired because landlords wouldn’t take responsibility, benefit claims delayed or refused due to errors by the pensions service, assessments that resulted in no services, services that were of poor quality, people being discharged on Friday afternoons because the hospital wanted the beds. In the end I came to the realisation that the problem was that the services, policies and the practice surrounding them was wrong. It didn’t matter what I did, I could only help one person at a time, I couldn’t help everyone. The only way to help everyone was to change the policy, change the practise.
So it is with AWOC. No the state can’t take the sadness of being childless away from me or help me come to terms with being childless, that’s something only I can do and largely have done thanks to the support of other childless people. But what the state absolutely must do is recognise that for people like me, people ageing without children, their policy, practise and planning on ageing is inadequate failing to take into account the needs of people without family and ignoring the huge demographic shift which means in 15 years time there will be over 2 million of us over 65 without children.
If we plan for this now, there is a huge opportunity to improve services for older people and to develop new products and a bigger marketplace; if we don’t, if you thought health and social care was under pressure now, you ain’t seen nothing yet!