As life expectancy increases, so too have the number of years that older adults spend with substantial care needs, now reaching an average of 3.0 years for women and 2.4 years for men aged over 65 according to a new analysis of care needs in 2011 compared to 1991.
While care is increasingly provided in the community, placing a significant burden on families, the study warns that at current rates of provision an additional 71,000 care home places will be needed by 2025 in England.
The study compares levels of dependency in adults aged 65 years and over in England in 1991 and 2011 – 15,000 adults in total. Adults were classed as high dependency if they required 24 hour care, medium dependency if they required care at regular times each day, low dependency if they required care less than daily, or independent .
Between 1991 and 2011, life expectancy increased for both men (from 77.9 to 82.6) and women (from 81.5 to 85.6). Over this time, the proportion of years that an adult aged 65 could expect to live independently declined from 73.6% to 63.5% for men, and from 58.0% to 47.3% for women. By contrast, the proportion of years living with low, medium or high dependency increased.
In 2011, average life expectancy for men aged 65 was 17.6 years. Of this, an average of 11.2 years was spent independent, 4 with low dependency, 1.1 with medium dependency and 1.3 with high dependency. For women, average life expectancy at age 65 was 20.6 years in 2011. Of this, an average of 9.7 years was spent independent, 7.8 with low dependency, 1.1 with medium dependency and 1.9 with high dependency.
For adults aged over 65, the number of years spent with substantial care needs (medium or high dependency) has nearly doubled between 1991 and 2011 – increasing from 1.1 years to 2.4 years for men, and from 1.6 years to 3.0 years for women.
“The past 20 years have seen continued gains in life expectancy, but not all of these years have been healthy years. Our study suggests that older people today are spending more of their remaining life with care needs. Though most of the extra years are spent with low dependency – including help with activities such as washing, shopping or doing household tasks – older men and women are spending around one year more requiring 24h care. This finding, along with the increasing number of older adults with higher rates of illness and disability is contributing the current social care crisis,” says Professor Carol Jagger, lead author from Newcastle University, Newcastle, UK.
The researchers also analysed whether or not people lived in care homes or the community. They found that older people with substantial care needs were less likely to be living in a care home in 2011 than in 1991. For instance, in 1991, three quarters (73.5%) of adults aged 85 years who required 24h care were living in a care home, compared to about half (51.8%) in 2011.
The authors estimate that if rates of dependency remain constant, there will be an additional 190,000 older people with medium dependency, and 163,000 with high dependency by 2025 compared to 2015 (reaching 883,000 for medium and 813,000 for high dependency in 2025). While approximately half of these people will live in the community, at current rates of provision, this means an extra 71,215 care home spaces will be needed by 2025.
Additionally, the study projects an increase of 885,000 in the number of people with low dependency (generally looked after in the community), reaching 4.44 million by 2025.
“Our study estimates that by 2025, there will be an additional 35,3000 older people with complex care needs that require sustained input from family carers or community health and social care teams to support independent living. While many of these people will live in the community, at current rates of provision, this will mean a shortfall of over 71,000 care home places by 2025.” Professor Jagger adds.
Study co-author Raphael Wittenberg commented, “The analyses in this paper are valuable for informing the development of policy on long-term care finance and planning of long-term care services.” Wittenberg, an Associate Professorial Research Fellow at the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School Economics, regularly produces projections of future expenditure on long-term care for the Department of Health.
The authors highlight the burden on family and friends who often provide unpaid care in the community, and warn of the implications for health and social care services of the increase in care needs. They highlight the need for adequately trained professionals to care for older adults with complex needs. Early interventions for people with low dependency, such as structured exercise, rehabilitation or assistive technology, could potentially slow down the decline and ensure fewer years are spent with higher dependency.
The study is the first to analyse the extent to which the current care crisis is due to greater levels of dependency than in previous generations, rather than simply greater numbers of older people. It compared data on cognitive function and ageing in people aged 65 or over from three areas in England (Cambridgeshire, Newcastle and Nottingham). 7,635 people were included in the study in 1991, and 7,796 in 2011. Levels of dependency were assessed via interviews in their place of residence, ie, their own home or a care home.
The authors note that there was little ethnic diversity in the two studies and therefore the results may not be generalisable to non-white populations in the UK.