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09 Dec 2021

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Knowing the price but not the value of care

By guest blogger JEF SMITH

My wife had a severe cold in mid-December and, unusually for her, stayed in bed for a day, so I took her meals in, went out to the chemist, and generally tried to distract her from the coughs and sniffles. The next day I spotted a report from Age UK which initially startled me. What the press release described as ‘an army’ of elderly carers provide 1.2 billion hours of care a year, which constitutes an annual saving to formal services of £23 billion annually.

I hadn’t until then considered myself a foot soldier in a vast economic project and the more I think of it the more unattractive I find the picture. When my wife for her part reminds me to take my medicine or watch my diet she is, I suppose, carrying out a role which might otherwise be occupied by a wage-earning domiciliary care assistant, so she too contributes to saving the Government money. How quaint of both of us to have been thinking of ourselves as just naturally caring for each other.

Of course it’s useful for economists to calculate the worth of unpaid services like housework, DIY and caring, but they must be cautious not to murder what they observe. Caring for those close to us should be the default position within relationships, an unforced product of loving and being loved, put simply an essential element of our humanity. Drawing attention to the price of every action runs the risk of losing sight of their value – the very definition of cynicism.

That global figure of 1.2 billion hours does admittedly include a good deal which would be more properly the territory of public provision. Very old people painfully – and sometimes reluctantly – look after even older spouses: children disrupt their own young lives by having to provide personal services to disabled parents. And some of the care given informally is frankly below par, especially when the dependent person has severe dementia, serious health problems or other complex needs. Here indeed, there should be arrangements for professionals to step in, and of course be paid for the work they do and the expertise they bring to it.

To get a clear picture of the gap in care funding, we need to separate out on the one hand what is quite appropriately delivered informally from on the other hand caring services which fall below an acceptable standard by dint of being enforced or amateur. Quoting huge undifferentiated figures like £23 billion only serves to frighten off the politicians, and that’s the last thing we want to do right now.

  • The CT Blog is written in a personal capacity – comments and opinions expressed are not necessarily endorsed or supported by Caring Times.

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