A million lonely pensioners left to starve in their homes

The Times - 22 Jan 2018

As many as a million older people are starving in their homes through loneliness according to MPs who have called on ministers to redirect funds into schemes such as lunch clubs.

Isolation from relatives and friends is a bigger cause of malnutrition in the elderly than poverty, they say, and the winter fuel allowance should be means-tested to free money for meals on wheels and lunch clubs.

Supermarkets should have “slow checkout lanes” so that older people can get enough to eat by shopping without rushing, the all-party parliamentary group on hunger recommends.

It reports cases where people have gone without meals for weeks after losing a partner or wasted away over many months because they had no one to help them cook. Others have gone hungry because they could not get to the shops. Some have been banned from supermarkets for falling over.

Social care services have said that while they will help frail elderly people eat, it is outside their scope to ensure there is food in the house, according to evidence gathered by the MPs.

Frank Field, chairman of the group, said: “Beneath the radar there are malnourished older people in this country spending two or three months withering away in their own homes, with some entering hospital weighing five and a half stone with an infection, or following a fall, which keeps them there for several torturous days, if not weeks.”

Theresa May said that loneliness was the “sad reality of modern life” as she appointed Britain’s first minister for loneliness last week. Tracey Crouch promised a strategy to deal with isolation and Mr Field said that his findings should be the “first report on her desk”.

About 1.3 million over-65s are thought to be malnourished but the MPs called for a more up-to-date estimate. Today’s report argues that pensioner poverty had fallen and few used food banks so the main reason was social. Mr Field said he was surprised to find that “for some of those who become malnourished it may be economic but there is also growing isolation, losing their friends because they’ve died and losing their partner.” Such people often end up in hospital and the House of Commons library estimates that malnutrition costs the NHS £12 billion a year.

A crumbling elderly care system has been cited as one of the main reasons for hospital pressures and Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, has previously suggested scrapping perks such as free bus passes to pay for social care.

The MPs say that £100 million could be raised to feed the elderly by stopping the winter fuel allowance for higher-rate taxpayers.

Dianne Jeffrey, chairwoman of Age UK and of the Malnutrition Task Force, an independent group of experts, said it was a “shocking reality” of modern Britain that malnourished older people were “hidden in plain sight”.

Only 29,000 people receive meals on wheels, down from 155,000 a decade ago. A handful of Sainsbury’s and Tesco shops have “slow shopping” times when checkouts are devoted to those who want to shop without feeling hurried.

A government spokeswoman said: “We know better diagnosis and detection is key, which is why we continue to train all health staff to spot the early warning signs of malnutrition so effective treatment can be put into place.”

Chris Smyth, The Times