If one asks the average British citizen on the street, “Are there wardens to help the elderly people in Sheltered Housing?” the answer is invariably, “Of course there are.” Some add, “If there were no wardens, it wouldn’t be Sheltered, would it?”
It comes as a huge surprise to them to be told that due to disjointed and counterproductive bureaucratic “cost-cutting” policy changes over the past ten years (under both the Labour and Coalition governments), many elderly and vulnerable people in “Sheltered” housing have been simply left to fend for themselves for up to 158 hours of every week (or even weeks on end).
The results are predictably devastating, not only for the residents themselves, but also for the NHS and the Emergency Services, which must try to pick up the pieces. Imagine the frustration of a paramedic who is stuck outside a locked security door at 3 AM, unable to reach the casualty lying on the floor of her flat because there is no warden on site to open the door. Imagine the futility of a doctor who must prescribe anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications to many of his patients in the full knowledge that what they are actually suffering from is the desolation of intense loneliness and abandonment.
Imagine broken-down lifts which trap disabled residents on the upper floors without any way of accessing the outside world. Imagine icy car-parks left uncleared in the winter, so that an elderly resident who tried to venture forth in search of food for himself and his neighbours suffered a nasty fall and shattered his elbow. Imagine an elderly lady who was forced to climb onto a chair to try to change her own lightbulb (because she didn’t have the £50 she would have been charged for this service) and suffered massive fractures when the chair tipped over. Imagine two eighty-seven-year-olds going into a burning flat to rescue their neighbour (and her cat) when the firefighters were unable to get into the building. Imagine a resident found by a visitor lying dead in the foetal position, desperately clinging to a pull-cord that connected to nothing because the system had been down for days.
[All of these incidents, and many others of similar severity, have been reported and confirmed by Sheltered Housing UK during their research into the conditions faced by the residents.]
The short-sighted “cost-cutting” policies created in an anonymous bureaucratic think-tank have thus led not only to life-threatening dangers and preventable deaths for the elderly and vulnerable residents, but also to massive inefficiency and wastage, the expenses of which must be borne (without their awareness) by the taxpayers. The only genuine cost-cuttings are those enjoyed by the landlords, who no longer have to pay the staff who used to make Sheltered Housing a safe and secure environment for their tenants.
Having thus externalised their costs to the taxpayers, the Housing Associations are routinely reporting ever-growing assets in the hundreds of millions of pounds; their CEOs happily take home salaries in the six figures. Equally advantageous to these huge conglomerate housing corporations is that they are allowed to register as Charities and thus take significant tax cuts. Small wonder then that they turn a deaf ear when the residents have the temerity to complain that the promises made to them when they moved into Sheltered Housing have been broken.
Considerably more surprising is the fact that the Government also turns a deaf ear to the residents’ concerns. In the infamously overbearing “nanny-state” culture which regulates every aspect of our Health and Safety, it is an unfathomable mystery why there are no measures in place to ensure the security and well-being of vulnerable elderly people in “Sheltered” Housing.
Every letter to the Department of Communities and Local Government is answered (after a long delay) with a form letter saying that this is a matter for the local authorities; the local authorities’ standard reply is that Central Government spending policies tie their hands. In effect, the Localism Act (2011) is simply another term for the Abnegation of Responsibility Act.
Under that Act, MPs were supposed to assume a far greater role in protecting their most vulnerable constituents. Yet the majority of residents have found that they get no effective response from their MP at all. As one put it, “I might just as well have written to Mickey Mouse.” There are few vocal MPs who have expressed their concern in Parliamentary debate, but no one has introduced a Bill to ensure that Sheltered Housing residents are properly protected. Even the MPs who are also doctors (who ought to be keenly aware of the huge medical costs of loneliness and isolation) have been blandly offhand their response.
This is power-politics at its most effective: if those in authority ignore a complaint for long enough (which requires no expenditure of energy at all), the complainants become de-humanised and disempowered. They are made to feel invisible, insignificant, and profoundly frustrated by their ineffectiveness. They will then presumably simply give up and go away and thus be rendered no longer troublesome. Then the Housing Associations are free to impose any policy changes they wish (sometimes accompanied by farcically meaningless “consultation exercises”) without fear of any effective resistance.
Ineffective Regulation, Lack of Standards
The HCA Regulatory Framework, which is ostensibly intended to ensure that the residents are empowered and actively involved in the decisions which impact so heavily on their lives, is in fact just a case of “What they don’t know won’t help them.” Very few residents have any idea that there is a Regulatory Framework in place at all, and the great majority are too intimidated, too tired, too docile, or too confused to put up any opposition.
In the few cases where they have formed an effective Residents’ Association or found a committed advocate to fight their corner, the benighted policy of warden withdrawal has actually been reversed. But this leads to glaring discrepancies between one Sheltered Housing scheme and another; in one location residents may enjoy the presence of a kind and supportive warden, whereas in another scheme only a few miles away they are left without cover for days on end.
Surely there should be a universal Standard which all Sheltered Housing residents can count on to ensure that the conditions of their tenancy remain consistent and dependable. But the British Standards Institute Committee on Sheltered Housing steadfastly resisted any attempt to impose a common Standard: the industry is thus allowed to continue with the laissez-faire policy of self-regulation based on unspecified codes of “best practice”.
Effects of the Policy Changes
Dr. S. Monick, who has lived in a Sheltered Housing scheme in Sutton for 15 years, writes that the very nature of the caring, supportive atmosphere that used to be the ideal in such schemes has been whittled away to nothingness: first, the dedicated team of familiar and comforting carers has been replaced with an ever-changing array of unknown and distant agency staff; second, the term “warden” is not even in use any more, having been replaced by a “Supported Living Officer” who divides her working time in “floating” between three different schemes.
The third point raised by Dr. Monick is the most insidious of all: flats in formerly “Sheltered” Housing are now being routinely allocated to people whose needs are entirely inconsistent with those of the elderly and vulnerable residents who moved in seeking security and peace of mind.
Note that his warden is now called a “Supported Living Officer” – in many schemes, the term “Sheltered” Housing has been similarly changed to “Supported” Housing (again, without any prior notification or consultation with the residents). This change reflects the fact that the elderly residents of Sheltered Housing were lumped in together with a variety of other “client groups” under the Supporting People programme, and the funds available for the support of the elderly were then siphoned away to assist drug addicts, recovering alcoholics, and people with mental health problems.
While the elderly residents of Sheltered Housing are perfectly well aware that such groups do need assistance, it is profoundly unjust that they should be robbed of their security on that account. Most threatening of all, it now appears that the bureaucratic policy-makers who decided to divert the funding for the elderly to these other client groups have followed on by deciding that they should actually be housed in the schemes that were originally intended to keep the elderly safe (hence the name change from “Sheltered” to “Supported”).
Thus, the residents now find that their new neighbours are prone to varying degrees of wildly unpredictable and anti-social behaviour, Being frightened by this is not simply an indication of narrow-mindedness on their part: it represents a genuine danger which has transformed many formerly “Sheltered” Housing schemes into nightmare worlds where all the residents remain locked in their flats for fear of what might happen to them if they venture forth into the corridor.
In one scheme, a new tenant arrived who was well known to have a documented history of mental health problems, including violence towards women. The residents’ objections were ignored, and he was not removed until after he had pinned a woman against the wall with his hand around her throat. Similar reports have come in from schemes throughout the country.
It is clearly time for some very serious questions to be asked about the policy changes that were put into place without the residents’ consent. Was any Risk Assessment carried out before these changes were imposed? How can it be that there are strict Health and Safety regulations controlling every industry in the country except the one that most directly impacts upon the well-being of elderly and vulnerable residents?
Effect on the Housing Market
The knock-on effects of the present shambles in “Sheltered” Housing have had a profound impact upon the housing market as well. When Sheltered Housing fulfilled its stated promise of providing an age-appropriate social life and assistance “with any emergency, large or small,” it offered a strong incentive for the elderly to downsize from properties that they could no longer manage.
Now that the word is out among the close-knit elderly community that “Sheltered” Housing no longer has anything to offer except isolation, loneliness, and fear, it is not regarded as a viable option any longer, and elderly people are choosing to remain in their own homes instead.
Having thus caused a major blockage in the flow of the housing market, the Government has now decided to punish those who fail to downsize by imposing a bedroom tax upon them. Would it not have been more sensible to keep the system working properly in the first place?
The Lynchpin Removed; The System Broken
Committed and caring wardens were the central lynchpin of Sheltered Housing, the critical primary-response presence who ensured the residents’ safety and well-being. Withdrawing the wardens has had just as devastating an effect on Sheltered Housing as the removal of the Matrons from the hospitals – a move that had to be reversed when the wards fell into a shambles of disorder.
When will the bureaucratic “think-tanks” actually do some thinking? When will they cast off their myopic “cost-cutting” blinkers and see that a happy, healthy society includes people of all ages? The elderly are not shirkers or pariahs; they should be honoured and respected for the lifelong contributions which they made to our society. Above all, they have an basic human right to live in security and peace of mind – which Sheltered Housing used to provide and should do again.
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