Bite-sized social care: What is social care?

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  • Posted:Thursday 11 May 2017

What exactly do we mean when we talk about social care? It’s difficult to define because the term covers a huge range of different activities, from child protection to end-of-life care – and it certainly doesn’t have the recognisable brand that the NHS does. In this video we look at what adult social care consists of, the responsibilities of local government, and the wider societal context.

This is the first video in our 'Bite-sized social care' series intended to help explain social care in England: what it is, how it’s provided and paid for, and how it works with the NHS and other services.

Social care has been in the news a lot recently. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about social care? It certainly doesn’t have the recognisable brand that the NHS does.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to define is that social care covers a huge range of activities – from child protection to end-of-life care.

Today we’re going to talk about adult social care: providing help, care and protection from harm for adults with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or physical and mental illnesses. At its most basic, this can include help with washing, dressing, getting out of bed in the morning, help taking medicine, and help with the housework.

Social care is becoming more and more important as our population gets older. The number of over 85s in England has gone up by over a third in the last 10 years, and will more than double in the next 20.

Local government has the main responsibility when it comes to publicly funded social care.

So what do councils do? They provide information and advice, they assess and monitor your needs and finances, they provide short-term support called reablement, they safeguard vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect, and they buy and monitor care from a large range of organisations.

With more people living into older age, this means there will be more frail people and more people living with long-term illnesses. In turn this means that there will be more people with needs for care and support.

The number of people receiving formal care from the state has actually reduced over the past six years, despite this increase in need.

Our research shows that the social care system as it stands is struggling to meet the needs of older and disabled people.


Susan Vickers

Comment date
15 May 2017
I was shocked to read your description of social care. I believe it is misleading. By talking about frail elderly people in relation to social care you perpetuate the myth that all care of elderly people is the same and is called social care. The vast majority of elderly people who reach the stage of being "frail" actually have multiple health conditions, illnesses, diseases and disabilities. They are or should be the responsibility of the NHS. You would have done better to explain to the public the legal divide between healthcare and social care, confirmed by case law, including Coughlan, Grogan and Pointon. It is lack of knowledge of this vital divide and the limits beyond which a local authority cannot legally provide care that is at the root of so many problems. Nurses and social workers are supposed to understand and uphold this divide - most do nothing of the sort and like the Kings Fund article think all care of the elderly is means tested social care, which it is not, or shouldn't be. The NHS currently unlawfully re-classifies genuine healthcare as social care to avoid having to provide and fund long term care and the scandal of NHS CHC remains a framework by which people are denied the care they are legally entitled to by NHS staff who are ignorant of the law and lack all understanding of the healthcare/ social care divide.
A shameful article from an organisation people see as knowledgeable and informed.

Patrick Hall

Fellow, Social Care Policy,
The King's Fund
Comment date
18 May 2017
Thank you for your comment Susan, which raises a number of important issues regarding the distinction between health and social care. These videos are very short and simple, so we couldn't go into the complexities of how responsibility is defined in terms of funding. The division between health and social care affects people of all ages.

The arbitrary nature of these fault lines are illustrated most acutely in the battles over what is known as NHS Continuing Healthcare

Amad Clapham

South Thames College
Comment date
03 March 2019

Hi I'm writing an essay on Social care as part of my Community interpreter course. I came across your comment on this page and am wondering if you can explain how you define social care? And also if you are a care professional I would like to know what is your role. Many thanks

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