I am haunted by “units”, a word that has become one of the most unwelcome in the English language. For the past month, I have lived by them or, as the medics would have it, risked dying by them. Was there ever a more prosaic way of referring to the pleasures of drink: Keats’s beaker full of the warm south, or Byron’s celebrated cure for a hangover, “hock and soda water”. In this prosaic age, we are advised to measure our drinking in units, measures worked out, I like to imagine, in some musky Dickensian office where the joy of living reaches only through piles of government directives.
My mood of euphoria follows the conclusion of a serious investigation I have been making for tonight’s Panorama on BBC One. And our findings are indeed serious. It seems the country could be on the cusp of an epidemic of old-age drinking. I admit I was thoroughly sceptical when the idea was first described to me. I thought I knew a good deal about the lives of older people. As the Government’s so-called tsar for the old, I met, talked to and corresponded with many of them. I got to know about care homes and retirement crises, of pension shortcomings and the fears of dying. But I never once came up against the problem of late-onset drinking.
Sir Keith Pearson, co-chair of the Commission on Dignity in Care, said some carers and nurses treated older people with “contempt”.
He warned that some workers would be dismissed if they could not provide dignified care.
His comments came in the wake of a wide-ranging report by a commission of senior NHS managers, charities and council chiefs designed to stamp out neglect and abuse in hospitals and in the care system.
The commission concluded that older people are suffering humiliation and degrading treatment on a daily basis while basic “respect for human rights” is too often ignored.
It called for an overhaul to give respect for human dignity the same importance as medical success rates or financial targets.
David Halpern, a senior No.10 aide, said loneliness was a “more powerful predictor” of whether a pensioner would be alive for more than a decade than whether they smoked.
He also suggested that elderly people who did not move to smaller homes were contributing to the shortage of housing in England.
Ros Altmann, director general of the Saga over-50s group, said: “It’s outrageous social engineering for the government to suggest that older people somehow don’t deserve to live in their own homes and that the government should decide what size home is appropriate.
“Working longer is inevitable but we need to be very careful in raising the state pension age to recognise that there are substantial differences in life expectancy across the country.”
On an official visit to Sweden, the Prime Minister and some of his key advisers discussed radical plans on retirement with their Scandinavian counterparts.
Up to 1.20 million frail and vulnerable patients are seeing their quality of life diminished because of a “salami slicing” of services and a failure to integrate health and social care, a report by the Commons health committee says.
Unless the Government takes dramatic action to overhaul the system, there will be “serious consequences for standards”, the committee warns.
Thousands of elderly people are forced to sell their homes or use savings to pay care bills every year, while sons and daughters of the frail often have to quit their jobs to look after their parents.
A report from a working group set up by the Department of Health, seen by The Daily Telegraph, has recommended almost doubling a proposed £35,000 cap on the amount an elderly or disabled person would pay for care over their lifetime.
Working adults will be told to take out private insurance or release equity from their properties to cover the future cost of care home places or any help they will need in old age. A national campaign will also “nudge” individuals to prepare for elderly support costs through pension schemes or through buying a home which can be used later to pay care bills.
Ministers have been advised to set the cap on lifetime care costs at between £50,000 and £60,000. A decision could be announced when Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, publishes a White Paper on the future of social care in April. Cross-party talks to reach a consensus on care funding are due to begin this week.