"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Jeremy Hunt raises red alert on loneliness

Rose-tinted views of the Asian model for caring for the elderly aside, when Jeremy Hunt highlighted the problem of loneliness among the UK’s ageing population last Friday, the one thing that most people could agree on is that loneliness presents a threat to one’s health.

The results of the BBC survey which triggered the Tory politician, himself married to a Chinese national from Xian, to wage war on loneliness among Britain’s elderly were branded by him as a source of “national shame”.

The health secretary controversially said we should follow the Chinese in looking after our elderly relatives at home. Furthermore, we should only use residential care as, “… a last rather than a first option”, something we could be forgiven in thinking is already the case.

The idea that the Chinese, or nationals of any other Asian nation, care for their elderly in a superior manner to the way we do in the UK is rather assumptive.

China, like the rest of the world, has seen rapid urbanisation and a decline in the number of people looking after their ageing relatives in the same household; so much so, in fact, that a much ridiculed law was enacted in July this year to enforce visits by children to their ageing parents.

The UK, like China, faces the challenge of an increasing older population which requires support. Yet under Theresa May’s amended family migration rules, introduced in July 2012, we have seen the erosion of the family’s ability to care for the elderly.

Under the rules, the visa criteria for adult dependents of British citizens who wish to come to the UK have been tightened to the point they are virtually impossible to meet. The rules require the dependent to be in need of care to perform everyday tasks and for no person in their country of residence to be able to provide such care.

The rules also prevent many Brits who are married to non-EEA nationals from returning to the UK to care for their elderly relatives since sponsors must now be able to demonstrate an annual income of GBP 18,600 a year in order to qualify as a sponsor. But, alas, Hunt, himself a millionaire, has overlooked this financial hurdle.

As a result of the rules, we are certain to see many more elderly abandoned by their children, either abroad or in the UK, not to mention a possible increase in the bill of state care as isolated old people are forced to resort to welfare. One of the many sad things about this abandonment is that it will not be through choice.

Grandparents will continue to be denied the pleasure of witnessing their grandchildren grow up and the elderly will continue to battle through sickness without the support of their children. Yet Hunt thinks we should learn from Asian cultures that supposedly have “reverence and respect for older people”. 

When cherry-picking issues to highlight, Hunt conveniently ignored the fact that loneliness affects people of all ages. A recent study on age and loneliness in Europe found only a two percent difference in the number of elderly people having reported feelings of loneliness compared with the young, while the Mental Health Foundation has found old people to be less likely to feel lonely than young people.

If these studies are accurate, we should be as concerned about the loneliness of people of all ages as we are with the loneliness of older generations. So what about Brits married to non-EEA partners who are forced into singledom due to visa restrictions? Many who fall into this category haven’t seen their spouses or children for months, even years, often for financial or language reasons alone.

So we see a conflict of interests: as Hunt tries to reduce loneliness, May is intent on increasing it, not just by keeping families from living together in the same household, but by keeping them from living in the same country. Now that is a shocker to top even Hunt’s distorted view of China’s traditionally family-centred culture.

Perhaps before rushing to follow a questionable social model for caring for the elderly from abroad, a few minor domestic modifications would go a long way in reducing the UK’s loneliness ranking.

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