Care home crisis predicted unless Government takes action

While many older people can live independently, major investment is needed to avoid the care system becoming overwhelmed in the future, say Newcastle University academics.

The unique Newcastle 85+ study, undertaken by experts at the University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, is the only one which looks specifically at this age group, the fastest growing demographic in the UK and is one of a small handful of studies worldwide looking at very old people.

The latest research from the study Capability and Dependency in the Newcastle 85+ cohort is published online today (11 May) in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Geriatrics.

The facts it has unearthed could have a huge impact on developing ageing policy in this country.

More than one in three (41 per cent) of those involved in the study were entirely capable of looking after themselves, with another 39 per cent needing help less than every day, meaning 80 per cent of the population aged 85 needs little in the way of care.

However, the paper predicts there will be an 82 per cent increase in the number of care home places needed (about 630,000 extra places between now and 2030) in order to cope with the demands of an increasingly older population.

Twenty per cent of those questioned needed either regular daily help or critical 24 hour care and with increasing numbers in this age group predicted in the coming years, more and more pressure will be placed on care services.

In 2010 there were 2.6m people aged over 80, by 2030 that is expected to rise to 4.8m and one in five of those will need regular care.

Professor John Bond, Prof of Social Gerontology and Health Services Research at Newcastle University, who led this part of the research, said: “There are two ways to look at this – with your glass half full or half empty. We have found that 80 per cent of people in this age group need little or no care which is great news. But on the other hand there needs to be some major investment to ensure that those who need help can access the care they need.”

To complete the study, researchers interviewed 841 people living in Newcastle and Tyneside who were born in 1921. The 89-year olds were questioned about their ability to perform everyday tasks such as cooking, dressing and washing to judge this age group’s level of self-sufficiency. The researchers then rated them on a scale according to how frequently they needed to call on another person for help.

Carol Jagger AXA Professor of Epidemiology of Ageing at Newcastle University and joint author on the paper, said: “We looked at how people are coping when they are left on their own and the results were surprising. More people than we imagined can look after themselves to a large extent, which is encouraging. Although this study centred on the North East, the population is representative of the nation as a whole so these findings can give us a good idea of the national picture.

“This is also a very timely report which shows that the Government needs to be investing both in elderly care and in research which tells us how to improve healthy ageing. It should be about helping people maintain their health in old age as well as looking after people. The demographics are changing so much and so rapidly that action is needed now to prevent a major problem a few years down the line.”

The Newcastle 85+ study is unique in its scope and provides vital information that is not available elsewhere, said Professor Tom Kirkwood, Director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University.

“Even without the impact of global economic recession on levels of public expenditure the ways we currently deliver long-term care are probably unsustainable given the future decline in the number of working-age adults available for employment in the long-term care sector,” he said. “Newcastle University, as part of its Changing Age Campaign, is committed to improving the quality of life for the UK’s oldest people, and conducting world class research in this area and this is further evidence of Newcastle’s position as a leading city of science.”