Hammersmith and Council has given great prominence in its public relations to reducing the charge for meals on wheels to £2 a meal down from £4.50. (The cost to the Council is £7 a meal). In heralding this change the Council has implied that many elderly people will benefit.
As so often the facts are rather different to the spin. There are 180,000 residents in this borough. The last census suggested that includes 7,000 lone pensioner households. In May 2014 there were 120 people who had meals on wheels delivered every day. It is now 70. So that’s one per cent of the lone pensioner households. Or 0.036 per cent of all borough residents.
In terms of the money the change is also pretty modest. A subsidy of £2.50 a day for 120 people cost £109,500 a year. A subsidy of £5 a day to 70 people costs £127,750. So the extra funding is £18,250. Frankly I suspect the Council spent more with all the special videos and glossy brochures boasting about how generous and caring it was being.
Anyway let us accept that this is a very small amount of extra spending to help a very small number of people. Furthermore that some of those 70 people will be wealthy and the financial saving of little consequence – the service is not means tested.
The question is why is the service in such rapid decline despite the increased subsidy. The explanation is that it doesn’t suit many people. Either the elderly are able to cook for themselves – at least on the modest scale of being able to use a microwave. Clearly that is an advantage for them to be able to choose what to eat and when to eat it – rather than something congealing on the way from Bagley’s Lane though the traffic jams. In any event they would not be eligible to receive meals on wheels.
On the other hand for those unable to cook, Meals on Wheels is really not enough. Most of the 70 recipients suffer from dementia. But usually for those in that condition it is better to have a carer cook for them and stay with them while they eat and drink.
Some others are mentally alert but unable to cook for themselves due to being physically incapacitated. Loneliness is often a terrible problem for them. Often by paying for a neighbour or voluntary organisation to provide their meals they can get rather more company than from the Meals on Wheels service.
Mike Boyle, the Director of Strategic Commissioning and Enterprise and Adult Social Care and Health, for Hammersmith and Fulham Council tells me:
“People can be offered a direct payment as an alternative for meals provision. The Direct Payment given is at the same gross unit cost rate as the commissioned meals, and the charge made to customers is the same charge as that for the commissioned home meals service. There is also provision in the home care contract for carers to prepare and cook meals when required.”
The upshot is that it is no surprise that the number of meals on wheels users is falling. While the needs and circumstances of the elderly vary widely there are nearly always better arrangements they can make – or that their relatives can make on their behalf.