DESPITE our growing and ageing population, Oxfordshire faces a shortfall of more than 600 care home beds over the next five years, fresh figures reveal.

There are 4,901 care beds in Oxfordshire and 39,000 residents over the age of 80.

But by 2022 there will need to be 5,650 beds to accommodate elderly residents, instead of the 5,025 projected – a gap of 625 beds.

Chairman of Healthwatch Oxfordshire, Prof George Smith, said health trusts and the county council should instead be focusing their energy on providing alternative healthcare models for elderly patients.

He said: "I want to take a big step back from these figures. All the elderly people I have spoken to would much prefer to live independently rather than in a care home.

"To simply say we need more care beds is not the right way of looking at this.

"To me the top priority is to enable people to live independent lives for as long as possible."

For a number of years Prof Smith has proposed an idea of a care home delivery system which would see teams of care workers supported by registered nurses out in the community.

He added: "Care workers are brilliant at what they do.

"If they are carrying out care in the community and perhaps, one day, one of their clients is not their usual self, then they can report this to one of the nurses who can then assess and see whether perhaps they do need to go into hospital.

"The minute a person goes into a care home the cost goes up by three or four times and the quality of of life that person has nosedives."

Deputy director for joint commissioning at Oxfordshire County Council, Benedict Leigh, agreed that care home beds are not the only solution for elderly residents.

He said: "We are working closely with housing colleagues in the district and city councils to ensure that there is sufficient extra care and adapted housing to enable people to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.

"In general we would agree with Healthwatch that the right model of care for many older people is ongoing support, both health and social care, to enable people to stay at home.

"The county council already buys more than a million hours of home care for vulnerable and older people across the county, and is working with providers to fund more care.

"We are lucky to have many high quality homecare providers in the county."

The county council also funds Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to provide home assessment and reablement across the county.

The Home Assessment and Reablement Team (HART) service supports around 220 people each week so they can live safely at home, instead of staying in hospital.

Mr Leigh said the council was working closely with the trust to expand and improve the service.