An inconsistent approach to commissioning bereavement support is creating a postcode lottery, according to analysis by Independent Age.
In a Freedom of Information request to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities (LAs) focused on emotional and psychological support, as well as practical information and advice, the charity found that there is no clear responsibility for providing or commissioning this type of bereavement support, with CCGs and LAs adopting different approaches in different areas.
The analysis found that, despite Covid-19 increasing both the number of bereaved people and the number experiencing traumatic bereavement, just 22% of CCGs and 17% LAs have provided additional funding for bereavement support.
It also found that, in at least 56 local authority areas, no additional Covid-19 bereavement funding has been put in place by either the local authority or local CCGs and 32% of CCGs and 56% LAs had not commissioned bereavement services at all within the last three years.
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Independent Age, said: ‘Undoubtedly the shocking death toll from Covid-19 has meant that more people are being left to struggle through a bereavement alone, but we know this lack of support isn’t a new problem.
‘For years, bereavement support has been disparate, unconnected and highly localised. People in later life frequently tell us they are unaware of what support is available or how to access it.
‘It has never been more urgent for the government to recognise the vital role bereavement support plays and make it a funding priority.
‘The Department of Health and Social Care must implement a bereavement strategy with improved oversight to ensure everyone is given the support they need at what can be the worst time of their life, regardless of where they live.’
In the first lockdown alone, Independent Age estimates that up to 98,000 people aged over 65 were bereaved of a partner.
Typically, 7% of bereaved people go on to develop ‘complicated grief’, a period of prolonged acute grief. This can happen when the ‘normal’ grieving process is interrupted, which has been the case for many people during the pandemic.
Due to the restrictions in place during the pandemic, Independent Age believes the number of people experiencing complex grief will be much higher.
Previous research from the charity found that older people are more likely to have worse physical and mental health as a result of bereavement than younger people.
An older person whose partner has died is more likely to die in the three months following their partner’s death than someone who hasn’t been bereaved.
Other devastating impacts for older people following a bereavement include loneliness and isolation, a deterioration in their physical health and financial implications.
Steven Wibberley, chief executive at Cruse Bereavement Care, said: ‘The briefing shows an unacceptable variation in commissioning bereavement support, in turn, this leads to a postcode lottery for grieving people looking for help.
‘Now more than ever, bereaved people need access to high-quality bereavement support that is tailored to their needs, wherever they live.
‘At Cruse we struggle with different CCGs / LAs commissioning in different ways, with different funding levels, different specifications and different outcomes. We need clarity, guidance and leadership from NHS England to ensure all bereaved people receive the support they so desperately need.’
In addition to improved funding and a national strategy, the charity is recommending that CCGs take the lead in commissioning services with support from LAs, but says this must be backed up by clear guidance for CCGs from NHS England on how to commission bereavement support services.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Behind every Covid-19 death are friends and families grieving their loss.
‘The government has acted decisively over the last year with necessary restrictions to control the spread of the virus. This has sadly limited the ability of the bereaved to access many aspects of healthy grieving, including the comfort of family and friends, funerals and other rituals.
‘We are committed to ensuring those who are grieving get the support they need throughout the pandemic and beyond, and we have given over £10.2m to charities, including bereavement charities, since March 2020, ensuring services are there for people who need them.’
NHS England has also been contacted for comment.
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