Dr Martin O’Neill is a researcher at the school of social sciences at Cardiff University.
Social science seeks to understand how society works so we can come up with policies and solutions to the problems we face.
How the elderly and infirm are cared for is a very good indication of what any society believes is important.
In the UK today care of the elderly is a major concern to everyone.
Even for the young and fit, who may consider elderly care is something they would prefer not to think about, the increasing ageing population means we’ll be forced to consider, in a lot more detail, how we fund and organise it.
Care is important throughout all our lifetimes – from the care given by parents during pregnancy and infancy, through to the often guilt-ridden process of finding appropriate care for those same parents when they become elderly and infirm.
How care is delivered and the quality of that care will increasingly come to the forefront of social policy concerns in the UK.
In Wales, the demand for elderly care will be further compounded by the fact we have some of the sickest communities in the UK.
In areas like north Merthyr Tydfil, where research has shown people often start to have significant care needs from the age of 59, it’s possible people will need more than a decade of elderly care before the end of their lives.
At the same time, working in the care sector is, for many, a less than glamorous or aspirational occupation – many care workers work long hours for wages at, or near, the national minimum. Even in those areas of Wales with some of the highest levels of unemployment people may prefer not to take jobs in this sector, which I’m sorry to say, has low status throughout UK society.
Additionally, the care home sector in the UK is increasingly part of a global industry, as highlighted by the Southern Cross case, which is financed by offshore capital and feels that to be competitive and cost-effective it needs to import warm-blooded goods in the form of care workers.
Often you will find people from the Philippines or Eastern Europe in local care homes working long and arduous hours to provide care for our elderly people so they can support themselves and their extended families back home.
These workers are often highly skilled, highly motivated and committed to providing good quality care, but managing care teams with different languages and different cultures presents its own problems that need to be overcome.
In the face of all these challenges my research is aimed at finding out how policymakers, care home providers and care givers can work more effectively together to provide the best quality, dignified care with the resources available to them.
To contact Martin please email ONeillM2@cf.ac.uk.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 10th October 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.