One of the biggest problems that western societies must face over the next few decades is what to do about aged care. We’re going to have an awful lot of old people to care for and it’s going to be very expensive. It’s a problem that most of us simply do not want to face, and governments are reluctant to confront the issue because there is no easy way to provide the necessary money.
The aged crisis is partly a product of the many undesirable social changes that have occurred since the Second World War. Partly, but not entirely. A major component of the problem is simply that old people are living much longer, and they have fewer children to look after them. It’s no good saying that in the past people cared for their elderly parents so people today should be able to as well. It’s not that simple. Those elderly parents could live long enough to reach their nineties and by that time their children are going to be rapidly approaching old age themselves (a member of my family was in her seventies and still having to care for her mother who lived to be 99). A century ago an old person would typically have three living children to share the burden. These days many aged people are lucky if they have a single child to shoulder the burden.
It’s also not realistic to think that families can still care for elderly relatives without government assistance. It just isn’t possible. A frail elderly person might still have a decade or more of life ahead of them, and when people live to extreme old age there is more often than not the complication of dementia, and caring for an old person with dementia is not possible without a good deal of support. I can tell you that from personal experience. We have to accept that the government will have to be involved. The family, and private charity, are not sufficient.
Of course those social changes I mentioned earlier have made the crisis much worse. People today are not keen on accepting any kind of responsibility and are inclined to see elderly family members as an inconvenience best dealt with by putting them in a nursing home as soon as possible. The problem with that is that nursing home care is much much more expensive than caring for the person at home, and that’s quite apart from the fact that while a nursing home is sometimes the only option it is generally not a very good option.
A society that values hedonism, autonomy and freedom is not well equipped to deal with the problem of caring for the elderly, and it’s amazing how many people who embrace these values seem to be able to pretend that it’s not going to happen to them, that they are not going to face the prospect of one day being shipped off to a nursing home when they become an inconvenience.
There aren’t any easy answers but somehow we’re going to have to find some kind of answer. I have a feeling that we will continue to pretend the problem isn’t there and the results are going to be very unpleasant.