Before she entered hospital on Sunday afternoon, the Queen ordered her aides not to “make a fuss”.
There was no ambulance for the 86-year-old monarch; instead, she arrived at the private King Edward VII hospital by car. I am sure once she was there, however, the nurses and doctors did, indeed, make a fuss. And I hope they did not because of her royalty, but because of her advanced age.
Perhaps she had a vase of freshly picked daffodils at her bedside to keep her spirits up. At the very least, I hope she had a glass of water kept topped up and always within reach. I hope that, once she was able to, her nurses helped her to eat something palatable and nutritious, and that she was never left alone, crying out in discomfort, or left to fall out of bed, confused and in pain.
Because we know that the Queen’s experience of hospital this week is not replicated for many pensioners admitted to NHS wards. Certainly not for an elderly relative of mine, an octogenarian like the Queen, after a recent fall. Her acute treatment was fantastic, but once she was transferred to a “step-down” ward in another hospital, staff all but ignored her.
Nurses, rather than helping her to keep down some food, simply recorded that she wasn’t eating. It seemed to be a form of managed decline. It was only the intervention of her family that prevented her condition from deteriorating beyond hope. For some, this intervention comes too late. The Labour MP Ann Clwyd’s husband was left squashed against the metal bars of his hospital bed before he died, despite her best efforts to demand help. The NHS is the best in the world when it works, but too often it fails – and it is the elderly who suffer most.
A report due out this month by the House of Lords Committee on Public Service and Democratic Change will uncover the huge disadvantages older people experience in the NHS compared with younger patients. Professor David Oliver, who recently left his post as the Government’s “elderly care tsar”, told the committee that, despite accounting for so much spending in the health service, older patients were treated worse than younger ones with the same conditions.
A depressed person over the age of 65, for example, is a tenth as likely to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist than someone under that threshold age. The committee will also point to a study by the Royal College of Surgeons last year which found that older patients were often denied the same surgery that would be given to younger ones.
The horrors at the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust hospital were inflicted mainly on elderly people, but it is not the only hospital where older patients are being failed. The large proportion of patients who suffer the 300,000 falls in NHS hospitals every year are over 65, while many cases of dementia are only diagnosed once a patient is admitted to hospital, rather than being picked up by a GP or carer.
It cannot be unconnected, then, that a major study published yesterday in The Lancet found that Britons are less healthy in their older years than pensioners in similarly industrialised countries. In the UK, a person can expect 68.6 healthy years of life before succumbing to disability or disease. In Spain, it is 70.9 years, in Italy it is 70.2. Even Greece, for all its economic troubles, is also ahead of the UK. Life expectancy in Britain overall is growing: a man aged 70 today can expect to live a further 17 years, a woman of the same age a further 19 years. Half of babies born after 2007 will live to be 103.
This should be a cause for a celebration. But while we are getting older, for many of us these later years are spent being less healthy than senior citizens in other EU nations.
The Lancet report, by Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics, says the UK’s comparatively poor health can be attributed to higher rates of smoking, drinking and obesity. But can it be only the Mediterranean diet of sunshine, olive oil, tomatoes and fresh fish that keeps pensioners in those countries living healthier lives into their 70s and 80s? Or is it also the preferential treatment that societies in Mediterranean countries afford their elderly compared with the UK?
In Britain, instead of focusing our efforts on keeping a growing elderly population healthy, we seem to regard the over-65s as a drain on public resources. The elderly in the UK are grey in every way, not just their hair. They are ignored, not celebrated.
In a society obsessed with youth and beauty, we turn away from the elderly almost as though we are afraid to face up to our own old age. After years of facing up to a social care funding crisis, the Government is finally starting to tackle this problem, but help is going to be slow and will not be enough for many families.
Prof Oliver, in his evidence to the Lords committee, said we should not characterise all older people as “hapless victims who are ill” but celebrate their long life and support them in good health. The Queen’s apparently robust health and longevity should be applauded, but let us not ignore the nation’s other pensioners.
Jane Merrick is the Political Editor of ‘The Independent on Sunday’