Do We Really Care? Jobs: Looking after the Elderly Is a Vital, If Unglamorous, Role - and Some Carers Have Been Accused of Abusing Those They Should Be Protecting. Jacky Hyams Investigates

Article excerpt

Byline: JACKY HYAMS

DORA sips her tea and beams approvingly at the carer who has just placed it before her. Here, in 92-year-old Dora's tiny one-bedder near Archway, north London, the TV stays on most of the time. The Zimmer frame by her chair tells the story: since a fall last year, she relies on it to help her move around her flat and into the kitchen where she still manages to cook.

Until the fall, she could even get herself out to the local shops and back. But not any more: a combination of arthritis and failing vision have rendered Dora housebound.

Like many very elderly people, she is virtually alone. All her siblings died years ago. Her husband died in 1990; her only son lives in America. His weekly phone calls and annual brief visits are the only real link Dora has to her past life. So her carer is her lifeline: a home carer employed by the local authority to help Dora retain a fragment of her former independence.

She visits Dora each weekday morning and evening, shopping for her, helping her wash and dress, paying her bills at the Post Office, ensuring her flat is clean and tidy. She is the centre of the old lady's dwindling universe. Yet the carer's work, and that of thousands of other part-time carers working with the elderly, is poorly perceived and undervalued. Average part-time earnings are about [pounds sterling]8,000 to [pounds sterling]10,000 a year.

Now, too, such workers are coming under closer scrutiny than ever, with harrowing tales of abuse of the elderly by those charged with looking after them - both in the community and in residential homes.

So, is such abuse as widespread as we've been led to believe - and what is being done about it? "In our service, it's not that common," says Bobbie Mama, service manager for Islington's older people and people with physical disabilities. "There's not that many recorded incidents. But that doesn't mean it's not going on. A lot of it is just not exposed. Personally, I think there's a lot of unreported stuff going on within families.

"Abuse of elderly people is not just physical. It can be emotional or financial.

Benefit fraud has been a problem in the past with home-care workers. Five years ago I can recall dismissing a woman in home care because of benefit fraud. She just went to an outside agency and popped up again, working elsewhere in the area."

Bobbie Mama is fervent in supporting the work her home carers do. "It's seen as a low-grade job when it's one of the most important jobs anyone can do," she says.

"Home carers are vital to old people's lives. Seventy per cent of very old people live alone; a lot have minimal contact with their family. The home carers help them keep living at home - and give them some kind of quality of life."

Bobbie Mama's work involves managing and running Islington's five day-care centres for elderly and disabled people as well as managing the authority's 120-strong team of in-house carers and their managers. At 44, she is an experienced senior social worker who has worked at Islington for 17 years in a variety of managerial roles involving disabled and elderly people, and was promoted to head of service three years ago. Much of her working day is spent out and about in Islington, visiting her managers, popping into the day-care centres, talking to elderly people, the carers and the social workers.

"Problem solving is a big part of the job," she says.

"Managers need lots of advice and support." But the greatest challenge of her role is recruiting reliable home carers.

THERE has, she says, "to be a big element of trust with the people you employ because it's a job where people go into homes, they have keys and they handle other people's money. They are managed, but the management is limited.

And it has to be part-time work because, for us, that's economically viable.

In the old days of 'home help', carers worked nine to five but nowadays, we need people to go into homes early morning and at night: during the day, many elderly people go to day-care centres. …