When an official report emerged last week, revealing that the NHS neglects the elderly, did it receive an appropriately strong reaction? Sure, it was in the news for a day or two, but given that old age is a future the (supposedly fortunate) majority of us will face, should we not be a bit more terrified when we read about elderly patients being treated with disdain, or being neglected and even abused?
We are an ageing population. According to Health Service Ombudsman Ann Abraham, the number of people in the UK aged over 85 has doubled in the last 25 years and, by 2034, 23% of the population will be over 65 years of age. We're living longer, but with that comes an increasing number of years when we are likely to be in poor health. If the present is anything to go by, our health care system is completely and utterly unprepared for the future.
For her Care and Compassion report, Abraham looked in depth at 10 of the 226 cases of mistreatment investigated last year and what she describes is upsetting. Yet I wonder, if it had been people from a different societal group so badly mistreated, the uproar would have been louder.
What if it had been a 30-year-old transferred in an ambulance, strapped to a stretcher soaked in her own urine? Or a 12-year-old, dying from cancer, left unattended for hours behind a hospital curtain, unable to attract attention or help because he was too dehydrated to speak or even swallow? Because the people who actually endured such indignity and neglect were elderly, was it somehow less shocking? If they hadn't been elderly, would it have happened at all?
The problems with care seep well beyond the walls of our hospitals. Last year, the Care Quality Commission said it had closed 93 residential care homes and agencies because of poor ratings – yet later a BBC investigation found that 12 had actually remained open, and under the same ownership. Currently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is conducting an investigation into home care for elderly people, because there are concerns that agencies are failing to offer the respectful care they are entitled to.
As the Shadow Minster for Public Health Diane Abbot said in an article on NursingTimes.net on Tuesday, this is not the first time these sorts of problems have been highlighted but nothing seems to be changing. Can we realistically hope for change when the NHS, which is required to save £20bn in the next four years, has a whole net of bigger fish to fry?
Perhaps the most damning thing was Abraham's conclusion that the terrible instances of maltreatment were not solely down to personnel who were overworked and consequently dropping a ball occasionally. Instead, she believed they were the result of a cultural issue and the "dismissive attitudes of staff" within the NHS.
Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director at Age UK, agrees with her. She says the majority of staff "lack the skills" to care effectively for the elderly and that there is a "deeply ingrained cultural bias against working in the geriatric field." What she is referring to is a very sad – and dangerous – reflection of a general culture of ageism within society at large, where people are deemed useless beyond a certain age and are increasingly ignored as they have an increasing need for kind and compassionate assistance.
By no means should we undervalue the extreme hard work of those in the NHS and residential care homes who do care for elderly with care and compassion. As ever, we should remind ourselves of the admirable work done by many, such as the people who volunteer to drive my wonderful 97-year-old grandfather (who is an absolute inspiration) to weekly groups to meet his friends. But the ironic thing is, if my generation doesn't attempt to alter the attitudinal trend that sees respect for safety, wellbeing and happiness decline with each passing decade our bodies keep pumping blood through our veins, then we're securing a pretty bleak future for ourselves aren't we?