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'Lonely funerals' shocking: Hunt

Published 01/07/2015

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on people to do more to look out for each other
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on people to do more to look out for each other

It is shocking that thousands of people are dying alone in the UK, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to say today, as he makes a direct appeal to the public to take better care of their older relatives.

Around eight "lonely funerals" take place every day, which are funded by the council because no friends or family are there to pay for them, Mr Hunt will say.

In a speech to the Local Government Association's (LGA) annual conference, he will call on the public to step up, and say that while the health and social care system must do a better job at looking after people, "so too must all of us as citizens as well".

The Health Secretary will highlight figures that show that one in ten older people do not see their family even monthly, and that in just five years' time there will be a million more over-70s - one third of them living alone - meaning the situation is only likely to get worse.

He will refer to a recent case in Edinburgh, where police had to break down the door of a flat to reach the body of a man who had lain there for up to three years.

In his first direct appeal to the public, Mr Hunt will tell delegates: "Statistics from the LGA indicate that in 2011 in England there were 2,900 council-funded funerals. That is around eight 'lonely funerals' every single day, half of which were for over-65s.

"Are we really saying these people had no living relatives or friends? Or is it something sadder, namely that the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives that we don't have any idea even when they are dying?

"Yes, the health and social care system must do a much better job at looking after them. But so too must all of us as citizens as well.

"Shockingly, in Edinburgh last week, police had to break down the door of a top floor flat because it had been so long since the door had been opened, and pick their way through mounds of unopened mail, to reach the body of a man who may have been left undiscovered in his flat for up to three years."

Mr Hunt will say that in Japan, where nearly 30,000 people die alone every year, they have even coined a word for it - "kodokushi", which means "lonely death".

He will say that attitudes also need to change, so that people feel they can talk to their employers about caring for their elderly relatives as they would about childcare.

On the broader topic of getting the public to take more responsibility for their health, Mr Hunt will tell the conference in Harrogate, North Yorkshire that "t he best person to prevent a long term condition developing is not the doctor - it's you".

Referring to the move by the NHS to cut down its spending, he will say: "We are insisting on a laser-like focus from the hospital sector to make sure every penny counts for patients.

"But there is a role for patients here, too. There is no such thing as a free health service: everything we are proud of in the NHS is funded by taxpayers and every penny we waste costs patients more through higher taxes or reduced services."

He will also talk about how most GPs are now offering their patients access to a summary of their medical record online.

"This needs to be the start of a much bigger change where everyone feels firmly in the driving seat for their own health outcomes, and it's an area where the NHS and Local Government can work together," he is expected to add.

He will also say the six million carers in the UK do a "magnificent job, even if they do not always get the thanks or support they deserve".

Mr Hunt will announce that Minister for Care Services Alastair Burt will develop a new Carers' Strategy, which will look at best practice from around UK and the world.

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