Features: January 23rd, 2012

As cross-party talks on social care reform bring the future funding of elderly care into the spotlight, Ian Stone, sales, marketing and development Director at apetito examines the vital role Community Meals play in keeping the elderly in their homes for longer, easing the burden on Britain’s overstretched care system.

While some ministers support the controversial view that the elderly should pay for their place in a care home out of their own pockets, others argue that the state should plough more funds into residential care rather than leaving it to individuals and their families to foot the bill.

Wherever you stand in this debate, few can deny that a major re-think is needed if the care system is to stand a chance of coping with the increased pressure of a rapidly growing ageing population and ever-tighter public sector budgets.

The cross-party talks follow the findings of Andrew Dilnot’s commission, which predicted a 25 per cent rise in demand on adult social care services over the next decade.

To put this in perspective, it is estimated that by 2020, the total annual cost of care home provision in the UK will reach a staggering £15.6 billion. This is down to the fact that the number of people in care homes funded by the public is estimated to continue to increase from the current level of 227,700 to 383,500 in 2032. By comparison, the estimated cost of domiciliary care provision will be far lower at £1.2 billion with an additional £51.3 million subsidy for the provision of a ‘Meals on Wheels’ service.

In fact, the report concluded that keeping people in their own homes instead of going into care could save the UK more than £1 billion each year.

Besides the fact that most elderly people would prefer to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, with figures like these it’s hard to argue that delaying their entry into residential care has a significant role to play in reducing the pressures faced by our country’s care system.

Keeping healthy at home

Ensuring the elderly receive a balanced, nutritional diet is a key factor in maintaining the level of health needed for them to remain in their homes. After all – food is one of the best medicines! Ideal for those who have difficulty cooking for themselves, Community Meals services provide nutritious meals tailored to suit individual appetites, tastes, dietary needs and cultural preferences.

For example, apetito’s selection includes kosher meals and halal dishes, as well as an innovative range of soft and puréed meals for those with swallowing difficulties (dysphagia). Little is understood about dysphagia and it can be a real challenge to find ways to encourage sufferers eat, but the soft and puréed range is one solution that can help improve their nutritional intake and make their mealtimes more enjoyable. Every puréed dish looks just like a normal meal, while soft choices offer appetising colour combinations to help make the dishes as appetising as possible.

The argument for promoting sound nutrition

In the years between 2003-2008 alone, the number of Community Meals delivered was reduced by 35 per cent, but during the same period the cost of malnutrition to the NHS increased by 214 per cent – many believe there is a direct link between the two, supporting the argument that Community Meals has the potential to deliver significant health benefits as well as cost savings.

What is more, just as important to Meals on Wheels recipients are the emotional benefits of seeing the friendly faces of the delivery team, who are often the only point of human contact they receive on a daily basis. In fact, independent think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), recently reported that social isolation affects more than one million pensioners in the UK. The CSJ has argued that a failure to address this means that many will end up in residential care as a direct result of the detrimental impact this isolation will have on their wider health and wellbeing.

Community Meal deliveries therefore not only provide the valuable health benefits that come with a good diet and nutrition, but can also contribute to the social wellbeing of residents, as well as their safety. We know from our own experience that our drivers regularly forge genuine friendships with meal recipients and are also trained to identify and report any signs of concern they pick up on their visit so they can be addressed as quickly as possible. For those who are rarely visited by friends or relatives, these visits can act as a vital lifeline.

Reducing meals service

Despite such compelling benefits, further shocking reading came with Age UK’s recent findings that more than 80 per cent of English councils only provide free home care – including Meals on Wheels services – to those with ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ health needs. By comparison, just 57 per cent of councils restricted care to these groups in 2005/06.

Even those that are classified as ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ may still be disabled or housebound and the less that is spent on them now means more will be spent when their needs become substantial and they are forced to enter the care system – a stage they are likely to reach far sooner with such a low level of support.

As Government cuts continue to bite and local authorities tighten their budgets, cuts to front line community services may seem logical. However, as the cross-party talks have highlighted, we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the future of elderly care in this country.

Offering far more than just a meal, the Community Meals service has a valuable role to play in meeting the wider funding challenge faced by Britain’s care system, not only by helping the elderly remain in their own homes by supporting their physical wellbeing, but also their emotional health. Set against the substantial potential costs needed to support them through residential or hospital care, anything that delays this has got to be worth the investment.

With such vital services under increased threat, reforming our care system has become unavoidable and local authorities should view cuts to frontline community services as a last resort rather than a quick way to make a saving.