22 May 2015, The Tablet

High price to pay for our haphazard social care

by JudyAnn Masters

Care workers are being stretched to breaking point, a consortium of Catholic charities called the Older People's Services Forum warned this week. Here a pastoral worker tells the story of one man whose desperate needs were missed by a piecemeal and under-resourced social care system

JudyAnn MastersThe first time I went to Peter’s flat, I was overwhelmed – the stench was horrendous in spite of the windows being open. My shoes stuck to the carpet. Peter was living in squalor. His care worker was just leaving. She was pleasant and in her late teens. She said Peter was fine and that she had given him breakfast – toast and tea. He didn’t want a bath and she had tidied up. I asked if she was his regular care worker and she said, “No, not really.”

Peter had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. We talked a bit. I told him I’d be back at lunchtime. I returned as a meal delivery service was arriving with his food. The woman put his food in the kitchen and left. I now knew why the carpet was so sticky – it was because of Peter’s failed attempts at trying to carry his meal with a trembling hand. I prepared a tray and brought it in to him.

He picked up the fork and knife, looked up saying, “These don’t work anymore.” Comforting him, I put my hand on his shoulder, then his back. I was sick to my stomach. All I felt was bones – in that instant I knew he was slowly starving to death.

Peter was a parishioner at my church in central London and the retired headmaster of a grammar school. I doubt he would ever eat with his fingers no matter how hungry he was. We talked, and he agreed to be re-housed if he was guaranteed he wouldn't be evicted and he wanted permission to die there.

I started making phone calls immediately. I soon understood there was no one person or place that had all of Peter’s information. No one realised he could no longer feed himself.

It took about 10 working days to get Peter into a care home. In those two and a half weeks, I was astounded at the chaos Peter unwittingly created, at the expense of the police, the local A&E and the fire brigade. Once, when entering his flat, a stranger who was there looked up and said, “This case verges on being criminal.” I agreed. We introduced ourselves. She was Peter’s new ward sister and wanted to know how he liked his tea.

Peter’s story unfortunately is not isolated. Even though he had a happy ending, there are many others who won’t be so lucky—that makes me angry. The first time at Peter’s flat, I shook with anger. It motivated me into action. I thank God my parish had the channels to put that anger to work.

One of the first things we did was a re-launch, a re-vitalisation, of our St Vincent de Paul Society. Additionally, my parish, Holy Apostles, is a member organisation of Citizens UK (CUK), an excellent vehicle for pursuing social justice with both the immediate and the larger communities. CUK found that the whole system was broken – care workers are overstretched and underpaid, the multiple agencies involved do not liaise with one another and risk missing obvious signs of need, and care providers and commissioners point to low funding from central government.

CUK lobbied the previous Government with our Social Care charter. Post elections our target remains constant: we want justice for recipients, care workers, providers and the commissioners.

I thank God I’m still angry.

JudyAnn Masters is the Parish Pastoral Coordinator for the Church of the Holy Apostles in Pimlico, London. She is also on the West London Citizens UK Leadership Team and CUK National Social Care Strategy Team

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