“Western culture has developed—or, rather, deteriorated—into an atomised individualism… As we have scattered to our own personal enclaves, as it were, we have left the elderly behind as unproductive, unrewarding problems” – Bishop of Oxford, 14/5/14
On 14th May 2014 the House of Lords debated a question for short debate from Baroness Cumberlege, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the incidence of elder abuse across the nation.” The Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard spoke about the need to focus on schools and civil society to counter recent worrying trends.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity for this short debate. The stories of the abuse of older people hardly need rehearsing—the media are full of them—and the scandal of a particular care home recently has shocked the nation. Some of us will have had opportunity—even in our own families, doubtless—to experience some of this problem.
The Health Secretary has conceded that something is badly wrong with the care system. However, rather than dwell on the horror stories I want to ask a couple of deeper questions. The first question is: how did we get here? We have lost the quality of belonging together that in Africa is called “ubuntu”, the consciousness of a common humanity. Western culture has developed—or, rather, deteriorated—into an atomised individualism, where we do whatever seems good to us in our own lives and for our own benefit. As we have scattered to our own personal enclaves, as it were, we have left the elderly behind as unproductive, unrewarding problems.
The 2007 study by the National Centre for Social Research stated that neglect was the predominant type of mistreatment of older people in society rather than physical violence. The risk factors are being aged over 85, being female, being in bad health and already being in receipt of some form of support services. A former Commissioner for Older People in Wales has estimated that one person in four reports elder abuse in one form or another, ranging from impatient behaviour to physical mistreatment. We have lost the quality of ubuntu.
The other question is this: where do we start looking for answers? One place must be in our schools. All the primary schools I visit have ubuntu in spades. Their value statements invariably speak of community, belonging, caring for one another, tolerance and respect, and all that works really well at that level. When the pressure is on at the secondary level, we must insist that values education is still more important than narrowly conceived academic achievement; character trumps even five A to Cs. Care for the other, respect for the elderly and the common good are the values that contribute to ubuntu, and they can be experienced, taught and internalised in our schools.
The other key factor in recreating a compassionate society is aligning the different strands of civil society to that common goal. Here I must put in a word for the way the churches cover the entire country with a network of care so ubiquitous that it is often missed by commentators and decision-makers. The church is the largest voluntary organisation in the country by far. In my own diocese we have 815 churches—an outlet on every high street, as it were—with over 600 clergy and 50,000 members who are all motivated to care for their neighbour. The result is a network of care in the form of visiting, lunch clubs, good neighbour networks, dementia groups and drop-ins, as well as countless opportunities for older people to use their skills, experience and wisdom. We have to break down the boundaries between formal and informal care so that a spectrum of modes and levels of care is provided, not just relying on a culture of, “Let’s leave it to the professionals”. My question is: why should we not have ubuntu in Britain; a British ubuntu?