When I get out my camera to take his photograph, Heinz Wolff says: ‘I have three faces,’ and demonstrates: ‘Mad professor [glasses on forehead], slightly less mad professor [glasses on nose] and normal [no glasses].’ We decide to go for mad professor.
Heinz Wolff developed a nice sideline in broadcasting with his mad professor persona in the 1970s and 1980s, presenting television programmes such as The Great Egg Race, Young Scientists of The Year and Great Experiments Which Changed The World. Even with his glasses off, the tufts of hair bushing horizontally around his ears and his German accent (he arrived in Britain as a refugee at the age of 11) create a convincing impression of an eccentric but kindly inventor. Now the emeritus Professor of bioengineering at Brunel University, Wolff himself invented the term ‘bioengineeering’ – to describe the application of technology to biological science – and has been eminent in medical and space research.
At 82, he is still working in the Heinz Wolff building at Brunel. ‘I have always been a techie,’ he says; lately, however, he’s become convinced that technology is not the solution – certainly not the chief solution – to one of society’s gravest problems: care of the old. He shows me a picture of a hand on the computer beside him. ‘This,’ he says, with practised presenter’s flourish, ‘is the primary tool for care.’
The future is alarming. There will be 2.5 million people over the age of 85 in 20 years’ time, many of whom will require help to continue to live in their own homes. ‘I expect the state to maintain the NHS, but not to have the money to allow local authorities to fund care, even at its present levels,’ he says. ‘And those levels are not very satisfactory. You may have someone to come in and get you up and give you breakfast, but depending on where you are on the rota, it could happen at 6.30 or 11.30.’
He thinks the government ‘has made a mistake in thinking care can be solved by technology. Older people don’t particularly want it, and it can’t wipe your bottom.’ His latest idea is a kind of time bank for care. Something like this is around in various forms, notably in Japan, where the Fureai Kippu, a healthcare currency, developed to cope with the inadequacy of government funding combined with the difficulties faced by family members living far from relatives who needed care.
Under the Fureai Kippu scheme, an hour’s help with shopping or cooking for an old person in your area earns you a credit. Outside the hours of 9am to 5pm, you earn time and a half; body work is double time. The hours banked can then be donated to the care of friends and parents elsewhere.
There are various other, smaller variations on the credit-for-caring theme, most of them aimed at establishing an intermediate zone between volunteering and full-time work. Slivers of Time in the UK sets up online local marketplaces to which people can offer small amounts of time for which they are paid. The Princess Royal Trust for Carers has called for cash credits for carers.
Professor Wolff’s proposal differs in that its benefits are redeemed a long time in the future. It’s actually an insurance scheme. Volunteers in their fifties and sixties would earn credits to spend when they come to need care themselves later. Their work couldn’t replace professional care, but would be useful to those who need moderate amounts of help, at the level of getting up and going to bed, cooking meals, being driven to appointments and having someone to talk to.
Wolff is the first to acknowledge that there are all sorts of potential problems. ‘Look, in general it’s a good idea, but it’s difficult to do. That is why, over the next year, I would like to set up a committee of people to look into the practicalities.’ He was at an International Care Conference sponsored by Carers UK in Leeds at the weekend, drumming up support.
The central difficulty with his plan, as he points out, is that ‘it would only work if people who had not co operated would be worse off.’ There is something discomfiting about care not being provided mainly according to need – although, of course, we accept this for pensions. But perhaps if the economy turns out to be deeply damaged and the care problem becomes really acute, such scruples might dissipate to some degree, and a time-insurance scheme come to seem less politically troubling.
Aside from this, Professor Wolff notes that there are other difficulties. The issues that would have to be resolved include :
- How to allocate free credits for those who weren’t in a position to earn entitlements?
- What would happen if you died; could you bequeath your entitlement to others?
- Should there be any trade in entitlements?
- Should there be a monetary element alongside the time earnings? (He thinks there should, for spending on stairlifts or mobility aids.)
- What training should carers get?
- How could time be transferred across geographical areas, if people moved?
- Related to this, who would manage the scheme? It couldn’t be run by government, because ‘people would assume they were being made to do something on the cheap.’
Six million people in the UK are already informal carers. It is clear they aren’t doing it for reasons of reward. The motivation to care is complex, bound up with such unquantifiable matters as love and respect, obligation and distress. Professor Wolff is not deterred by this. ‘I bought my mobility scooter for £200 on ebay,’ he says. ‘If you buy one new, it’s £3,000. But people will happily pay, because it’s a guilt neutraliser. You may not be able to get to see your granny very often, but you can buy her this. My scheme would tap into the same feeling.’
He is currently applying for funding and hoping to convene a panel of experts to investigate his proposal. Clearly, he’s right that we need to bring more people into part-time caring. Making civic responsibility a more publicly prized activity by giving it its own economy (particularly if the regular economy persists in valuing it so lightly) would also be a good thing. Certainly, small-scale schemes involving reward cards and time banking have been successful. The big questions for Professor Wolff’s scheme are:
- Will people will be prepared to wait 20 to 30 years for their payoff?
- And, more importantly, how do we want to allocate care? Need? Money? Previous value to the community?
It will be one of the biggest political questions we face in the coming century. Professor Wolff smiles. ‘I don’t expect to live to see this,’ he says. ‘I have a reputation for inventing things 10 years too early.’