There is an 80 year old partially sighted woman living just outside Drogheda who recently had a hip replacement operation. Consequently she has limited mobility. The Health Service Executive allocated her a home help package of 30 minutes a week!
Last Thursday I met with older citizens outside the Dáil who were there with the group ‘Older & Bolder’, which is an NGO committed to defending the rights of the elderly. They were lobbying for the immediate reversal of government cuts to Home Help and Home Care Packages. Many of those participating were older citizens dependent on their home help service and worried and angry and distressed at the government’s plans.
The Director of Older & Bolder Patricia Conboy, warned that the government’s cuts “will devastate the prospect of safe and healthy ageing at home. They actually contradict government policy of supporting people to age safely at home.”
The government’s attitude to the provision of home helps reflects Fine Gael and Labour’s general approach to dealing with the economic crisis. It is to heap the burden of paying for the banking debt onto the shoulders of those who can least afford it and to impose cuts to public services which disproportionately affect our most vulnerable citizens.
For the last 18 months, since they came to power, the government parties have introduced a succession of harsh cuts to public services and produced a range of stealth taxes. Many of those low and middle income households who in the past would not have regarded themselves as economically vulnerable, now have mortgage repayments they can’t meet, are in negative equity and face increasing indebtedness. A report last week revealed that 10% of households in the southern state suffer from food poverty. That means adults and children not having enough food to eat.
The Health Service has been particularly hard hit by government policy. Hundreds of millions were stripped from it in last year’s budget and this December another €750 million is due to be slashed from next year’s budget. This is on top of a current deficit of €500 million.
The government’s response has been to introduce more cuts. At the end of last August the Health Service Executive announced €130 million in ‘savings’. Included in this was a decision to take €8 million from the budget for home help hours. This will see almost 1,000,000 hours withdrawn from the home help system over a 12 month period.
These services are essential to the health, well-being and quality of life of those availing of them. At the same time the government is closing public nursing beds. Two nursing homes in Louth are among those under threat. The Cottage Hospital in Drogheda and St. Joseph’s in Ardee provide vital respite and residential care for older citizens.
The impact of this dual policy is that by closing nursing home beds the government forces more older citizens to live in the community but at the same time it is reducing their ability to do so safely by cutting home care packages to the bone. Government policy will also exacerbate the problem of delayed discharges from our hospitals of older citizens no longer requiring treatment but who have nowhere else to go. It doesn’t make sense, economically or morally.
Home helps, north and south, are mostly women who provide an essential life-line and support for older citizens. Many home helps frequently spend much longer with their clients than the minimum amount of time dictated by the HSE. They see a need and their humanity and compassion demands that they try to meet it. They certainly don’t do it for the money.
Home helps working in the public sector in the south are paid €14 an hour. They have poor terms and no legal protections. The cost of providing this service to the state through the private sector is €23 an hour. Theirs is the true spirit of community and volunteerism. Without their unselfish efforts many of our most vulnerable citizens would fall through the cracks of a system which is deeply flawed.
They allow citizens to live with dignity and independence in their own homes and in their own communities, and they are a crucial part of a community based healthcare system that helps prevent many citizens unnecessarily spending days or weeks in hospital beds.
Last Wednesday evening I took part in a debate on a private members motion introduced by Sinn Féin. It called for the government to ‘immediately reverse the cuts to home help hours and home care packages and to return funding to pre-Budget 2012 levels; and to maintain, develop and enhance home care front line services and to guarantee continued reliable access to community care for older people.’
Fine Gael and Labour TDs who had moments earlier stood in the chamber praising the work of the home helps and claiming to understand the pressures and stresses on older citizens, then voted with the government amendment which will allow the cuts to proceed.
Having extolled the virtue of care in the community and the work of the home helps the government TDs then voted for a government policy that will strip away the resources needed to make it all work efficiently.
There are cultures and societies in the world that genuinely care and venerate their older citizens. They appreciate and recognise the important contribution older citizens made in building those societies. In my opinion the majority of Irish people share this view.
But the same cannot be said of the government parties who are responsible for decisions that will impoverish citizens, increase loneliness for older citizens, and reduce their care and independence and mobility.