Who Will Care for the Increasing Number of Elderly People in the UK

According to census data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2022, in excess of 11 million people in England and Wales were 65 years or older in the previous year. That’s not far short of a fifth of the population and a big increase compared to the previous census that was conducted in 2011. Of course, it is hardly surprising that the country’s population is getting older. Birth rates shot up in the aftermath of the Second World War and many of the people born in the late 1940s and 1950s are now part of the demographic shift to an older population overall.

That said, the ageing population in the UK isn’t merely down to the historically high birth rates of seven decades or so ago. The other reason the UK – like every other western country – has an increasingly ageing population is that developments in healthcare and better living conditions – compared to previous generations, at least – mean that a higher proportion of the over 65s are living into their 90s than ever before. Indeed, the same ONS data stated that well over half a million people in England and Wales are now 90 years of age or older.

What’s more, the situation is not much different in Scotland and Northern Ireland despite some minor regional variations. What this means is that the UK faces a challenge in caring for its older citizens. Older people tend to require more healthcare than younger adults. They also need more specialist care in many cases, sometimes due to age-related conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, for example.

Consequently, it is understandable just how many people are now needed to fulfil demand in the adult care sector. For the next few years, more and more recruitment into this sector is going to be needed if all of the care needs of an ageing population are to be met. Nevertheless, it is important to note that this is something the industry has already recognised and is attempting to come to terms with.

A House of Commons report that was published in 2022 set out the scope of these challenges in the sector. And yet one key fact in that report stands out – the adult care sector in England now employs more than 1.5 million people. This is a truly astonishing number and constitutes more than the entire NHS employs in England today. So, the good news is that both publicly employed adult healthcare workers and those who have jobs in the private sector are there in numbers.

What is not so rosy, however, is that the same report suggests that there are something in the region of 105,000 vacancies in the sector. That’s just vacancies in England, too, and does not take into account the number of care worker positions that are not fulfilled in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the estimated vacancy rate for England in May 2022 was thought to be over 10 per cent. Clearly, the sector needs to do more if it is going to attract the workers it needs.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy just how high staff turnover is in the elderly care sector. It is estimated that in the region of 400,000 people change jobs within the sector or leave it altogether in a typical year. Therefore, all employers need to be more supportive with training and skills acquisitions so that current workers feel as though they’re gaining experience on the job. Part of this is, of course, the offer of true career progression and the ability to work your way up in a sector that relies on labour-intensive work. According to an in-home care service provider that specialises in geriatric and dementia care in Essex, staff retention isn’t all about pay. It is certainly part of the mix but good employers in the sector need to offer advancement opportunities as well as a decent hourly rate.

Since the UK left the European Union, it has undoubtedly been harder to recruit care workers from places like Poland and the Baltic States, among others. Therefore, the industry needs to make itself more attractive to UK citizens. It can do this by valuing the work of care professionals better both in terms of esteem and remuneration. In addition, the positive side of care work and how rewarding care can be when it is carried out to a high standard should be better emphasised. To this end, productivity measurements should take into account the human factor of interaction, not just outcomes based on task-driven care plans alone.


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