During my time at Essex county fire and rescue service, barely a shift went by without receiving a call from an elderly person who had fallen in their home, or from their concerned neighbour or carer.
The calls were always the same: a frightened voice, racked with humility and embarrassment, apologising profusely for “wasting” our time. “I telephoned because I know you can get in my house. I can’t get up, you see. I’m so sorry to trouble you.”
I would mobilise a crew and inform the ambulance service, which wouldn’t be far behind. We’re the “fire and rescue” service, you see, and that’s what we do. It was all part of the service, along with rescuing donkeys from swimming pools, righting overturned horse boxes and getting dogs out of lakes. These days the service is so much more than pointing wet stuff at burning stuff.
So news that Tendring district council in Essex is planning to introduce a “falling fee” for elderly residents struck a blow to all that I knew about decency, humanity and my years in the service.
I only did four years and thought perhaps attitudes were changing, so I contacted a former colleague to ask his opinion. He responded with expletives, with anecdotes of broken hips and shattered wrists and ribs smashed on the sides of bathtubs, and how dealing with them needed the professional care that comes of regular first-aid training and having a paramedic on hand.
Paul Honeywood, a Conservative councillor for Tendring, defended the measure saying the council needs the £26 annual charge in order to continue offering a “lifting service”. “Having consulted users, we have discovered there is a demand – and the idea is now going through the budget process with a final decision to be made in February,” he said.
Ironically, Mr Honeywood is also an officer with the Citizens Advice Bureau , which offers assistance to people who feel that they are being unfairly discriminated against on the grounds of age under theEquality Act 2010. If I were an elderly resident of the area, I might feel that being charged £26 for the inconvenience of growing old would count as discrimination, and might complain to Mr Honeywood at both of his offices. Politics, local and national, feel so desperate and deluded as to be beyond satire.
The falling charge will apply from April, if approval goes through. But this has wider implications. If passed, it will almost certainly prompt other cash-strapped local councils to follow suit. Yet old people will have contributed to healthcare services all their lives, through income tax, council tax (part of which is diverted to their local fire service) and taxes on goods and services. And many of them will have served their countries in the second world war, fighting for Mr Honeywood and others to have the freedom to decide to fine them for growing old.
In Essex, older residents already pay £21 a month if they want a Careline “big red button” alarm system in their homes – the falling fee is extra. The sinister undertone in this discussion is one of fear, and the same old nasty politics. Instil fear in people who are not as young as they were, not quite as sprightly, who may be living alone, and may already be fearful not just of taking a tumble on the stairs but of what the future holds.
For public officials to capitalise on this fear of infirmity is both sinister and cruel. My grandmother, who is in her early 80s, has had the odd fall. But if Southend council thought to offer a £26-a-year service to pop her back on her feet, I’m sure she would politely tell them where to stick it.
Elderly people, save your pennies and buy a £10 mobile phone. Stick it in your pocket, and if you should find yourself needing to be picked up and nobody else can get into your home, 999 is – and will always be – free to call.
In the meantime, this Essex council wants a “consultation”. Let’s give it to them. As Martin Luther King once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter … What are you doing for others?”