What must be done to improve the UK care system

Britain's families are being seriously overlooked during this austerity period.

Our campaign Defending the British Family demands that this neglect must stop. At every stage, families are feeling the strain of relentless cost rises, from escalating childcare and education bills to an ever-increasing tax burden.

And, as we find in this final part of the series, the financial grind continues into the twilight years, with rising numbers facing the unpredictable cost of meeting their own or relatives' long-term care bills.

While the seriously ill receive free care from the NHS and the worst-off among the frail get some help from their local authority, armies of ageing individuals are forced to drain their savings to pay for their own care or turn to their offspring for help.

THE FINANCIAL BURDEN

Each year, an estimated 20,000 people are forced to sell up to meet long-term care bills. And the numbers are likely to escalate as our life spans lengthen and a predicted three in four individuals will require some level of care in old age.

A spokesperson for charity Age UK says: "The true figure is hidden of those who struggle on alone - those who are deemed to be too rich or whose care needs make them ineligible for help under the rules."

Since the caring role in a family typically falls to the 40 to 54 age group, according to charity Carers UK, the impact on the whole family is immense, with many parents holding down a job while bringing up their own children alongside these extra caring duties.

Carers UK, which calculates there are about 6.4 million carers - around half of whom care for an elderly parent, says around one million of them have given up work or reduced their hours to meet their caring responsibilities.

Caring can catapult many families into financial hardship. In its Cost of Caring survey published last year, Carers UK found that more than two-thirds of those who gave up work were more than £10,000 a year worse off, four in 10 were in debt as a result, and that the money worries had affected the health of almost half the carers.

Steve McIntosh, spokesperson for Carers UK, says the government needs to think more clearly about how current arrangements are affecting families. He says: "Families can be pushed to breaking point and if they can't do all the care and are not being supported, the elderly person can end up in hospital, which costs the NHS and the government a lot more."

Among those who have stopped work to become full-time carers is Julie, from Somerset. Julie, in her 40s, not only looks after her husband Peter who suffered a brain injury two years ago but also her mother, who has had two strokes. Julie gives Peter round-the-clock care. Since both Julie and Peter had to give up work, the financial consequences have been devastating.

McIntosh says: "Their house was repossessed and they had to be declared bankrupt to try to clear their debts. Julie's mum, who lives across the road, does get support from social services but still frequently needs Julie's support."

The temptation to keep the caring role within the family is understandable, not least because no one can know for certain how bills will pan out over the long term. According to care fees planning group Symponia, the average cost of a care home is £28,000 a year – more than the average UK salary – and there are plenty in London and the South East charging fees of well over £50,000 a year. With longevity increasing, some care-home residents face the prospect of losing all their life savings to care bills.

It is the fear and uncertainty of the potentially open-ended bills that the government must address when it publishes its White Paper on long-term care funding due this month. Moneywise believes the government should implement as soon as possible economist Andrew Dilnot's recommendations, which include capping care costs at £35,000 to £50,000 and raising the means-testing threshold to £100,000.

With a ceiling on the bills, and greater protection of an individual's savings, families can have more confidence to plan ahead and manage the costs.

SCALE OF THE COST

Age UK estimates that one in two people requiring long-term care pay up to £20,000 in total, while one in 10 pay more than £100,000. Here's what you can expect to pay:

  • Residential care: £1,000 per week
  • 'Rise and retire' packages where a helper will come in the morning and in the evening: around £15 per hour
  • Live-in helpers: £750 to £800 per week
  • Live-in helpers including overnight care: £1,200 to £1,400 per week.

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO TO HELP?

Since so many carers are also employees, employers should help them to shoulder the responsibility.

Instead of seeing well-qualified staff vanish from the workforce at the peak of their careers because they cannot juggle work with caring roles, employers should be providing more for the estimated one in seven of their staff who face caring challenges.

McIntosh says that carers have the right to flexible working so long as they have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks but more could be done. He says: "There are employers who provide extra benefits such as carer's leave over and above their normal holiday and home working is another way that helps carers cope.

"Some companies such as British Gas and BT are members of Employers for Carers, a forum which was set up to offer advice to employers wanting to help their carer employees." The sad truth is you're pretty much left on your own to face long-term care costs. For example, if the person in need of care's assets are more than £13,000 (including their home unless their partner is 60 or over and still living there), they have to contribute to any costs.

WHAT ABOUT STATE SUPPORT?

They may get some help from their local authority if their savings are less than £23,500 in Scotland, £23,250 in England and Northern Ireland or £22,500 in Wales. But no matter where they live, the most that a local authority will pay towards residential care fees is about £550 a week.

There are some benefits available, but they aren't very generous. For the over-65s, there is the nonmeans- tested Attendance Allowance that provides a weekly income of either £49.30 or £73.60, depending on need, to help meet the extra costs a disability or infirmity brings.

Carers may be eligible for a taxable Carer's Allowance, worth up to £55.55 a week, so long as care is provided for at least 35 hours a week and your relative receives Attendance Allowance, or the middle or upper level of Disability Living Allowance. For more on benefits, go to direct.gov.uk.

So what should be done?

Moneywise supports demands from charities that the government must urgently plug the gap in social care funding. The government has given local authorities a £7.3 billion boost for social care but charities are sceptical it will do much good.

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, says: "Unless people receive quality care at the right price, they can be forced inappropriately into hospital, which could bankrupt the NHS. It is imperative we fix the system."

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