According to Catholic social teaching, the family should be the primary source of care for the elderly

According to Catholic social teaching, the answer to the question “who should look after granny (or grandpa)?” is “the family”.

The family might delegate aspects of providing care to others as care needs become more complex and our loved ones have to be cared for in a specialist nursing or care home. However, the responsibility remains with the family and it is in that context that the recent row and u-turn over long-term care costs should be seen.

I often hear the refrain that older people have paid their taxes whilst at work and are now entitled to have their care paid for by the state. But even Beveridge did not believe this. When the Beveridge report was implemented, health care was to be paid for and provided by the state, but social care was not – that was regarded as a matter for families.

And families do step up to the plate. In Britain, one in six of the population care for older people with one-third of them providing at least 20 hours care a week.

But, to say that long-term care should be the responsibility of families is not to say that the state should have no role at all. Certainly, the state should help those who cannot pay for care themselves or who have no family to provide care. And, it is not unreasonable to assist families who might be in danger of losing everything they have by protecting some assets from having to be liquidated to pay for care.

The state could also choose to cap total care costs if it is necessary to do so for a viable insurance market to develop so that a broader range of solutions can meet care needs. However, there is no right and wrong answer to these questions to be found in Catholic social teaching – they are very much secondary issues.

What would be really dangerous, though, would be a government policy that paid directly for all care. Just as state-funded childcare discriminates against stay-at-home parents, such a policy would discriminate against families who made sacrifices to look after their own elderly. The provision of care would then become more or less entirely transactional (and it would become very expensive as everybody took advantage of state-funded care).

One thing that Catholics should consider becoming more agitated about, however, is the whole way in which the taxation of families works. Taken as a whole, the tax and benefits system discriminates strongly against marriage and family formation. A good idea would be to tax households on the basis of their household income with the tax-free allowances of all the members of the household being added together. This would reduce the bias against stay-at-home parents.

Likewise, it would reduce the tax bill for families who looked after their parents in the family home. It is about time the state built the tax system around families and not around individuals. This is certainly a policy that is congruent with Catholic social teaching and would bring many social benefits. As technology develops, it will become much easier to look after older people in the home: our funding system and our tax system should not discourage this.

One final message from Catholic social teaching…We should try to make things a little easier for politicians and be less self-interested. There was a u-turn on long-term care because of reaction on the doorstep. We get very bad government policy as a result of political parties developing policies that promise giveaways thus encouraging the mentality that “we all live at the expense of everybody else”.