Why poor care for the aged is a society-wide problem

Recent scandals surrounding care are indicative of wider societal prejudices

Whether we like it or not, our ageing population is a growing trend. More than 10 million Britons are over 65, with this set to almost double by 2050; meaning that more of us than ever will be in need of ‘high-quality’ care and support. Unfortunately, if recent developments are anything to go by, ‘high-quality’ is the last phrase that can be used to describe the experiences of a large part of the older population.

In 2011, a Health Service Ombudsman report highlighted severe shortcomings in hospital care; the slow and (in some cases) absent response from staff left individuals soiled, dehydrated, confused and in pain. These were not the only violations of human dignity; one man was told he had terminal cancer on a public ward, denying him a right to privacy and demonstrating an utter lack of respect. Another hospital turned off a patient’s life support machine, against the expressed wishes of his family – thus preventing them with the chance to say goodbye. The – now infamous – report into care at Mid Staffordshire detailed further instances of indignity suffered by patients, with elderly individuals accounting for a significant proportion of those affected

The picture that emerged from the report at Mid-Staffordshire is one of a cold, target-driven culture in which healthcare professionals feel shorthanded, threatened and overwhelmed with the needs of those who they are meant to care for. It is this very culture which leads to anti-psychotic medication being prescribed to a patient in order to prevent them from being disruptive, or for individuals with additional needs to be ignored because they have difficulty making themselves understood.

I would forgive you for recoiling in horror at some of the instances of shocking abuse outlined in these reports, and branding all those involved as callous, uncaring and inept.  However, whilst there is no justification for the behaviour mentioned in these reports – and it is only right that individuals guilty of neglect and abuse are disciplined accordingly – the way the older generation is treated elsewhere shows how larger problems can develop.

When reviewing attitudes towards the elderly, we should not only evaluate how people are treated in sickness, but also in health. A few years ago, whilst conducting research for a leading healthcare charity, I was shocked to discover the difficulty involved in finding practical support for older people. Simple things such as a volunteer helping with the gardening, or local crafts clubs, were few and far between. The facilities which were available were often costly (not the best if you are living on a state pension) or near impossible to find. I was not able to document more close-knit forms of assistance like someone walking their elderly neighbour’s dog and popping in afterwards for a cup of tea. But given the fragmentation of our community over the years (particularly in major cities) the prevalence of such gestures is lower than ever. Individuals with dementia or other related illnesses seem particularly prone to isolation from the wider community, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Society.

Comments such as ‘[I’d] rather be dead than have dementia’, indicative of the fear and confusion surrounding the condition, with many being too blinded by the diagnosis to see the person underneath; are implicitly endorsed by a social care system which provides mobility and travel assistance to only those in dire need and where individuals can be waiting over three months for an initial occupational therapy assessment.  In the aftermath of the Mid-Staffordshire scandal (amongst others) we have heard grand plans to make the UK a world leader in elderly care. Jeremy Hunt gave an impassioned speech at the Conservative Party conference last year remaking on the need for proper care. But moot words followed by even more bureaucracy and regulation won’t solve the larger societal discrimination against those of us who fall into the ’65 or above’ age range.

So what will? Well, to paraphrase from Batman, it’s what we do that defines us. Because for all the policy that government can put in place, the top-down approach so far has not stood the test when it comes to ensuring older people’s care is improved or that their dignity is kept intact. If a change is to happen it has to be one that we – as individuals and as a community – help to shape.

Written by Anna Carnegie. The Social Policy Forum challenges social policy by stealth in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor.

Picture by: Tony Alter