Geraldine Bedell: Lack of respect for the old is the real problem

Underlying lack of funding is ageism: old people are mistreated because they are loathed


You're in hospital and your oxygen tank leaks, soaking your pyjamas and the bed. No one comes to help until your daughter arrives, when one of the nurses says: "Oh, no! What's he done now?" You visit your mother in a care home and find that she's in nappies, even though she's not incontinent. She tells you that she complained to the staff but they accused her of making trouble and – she believes – punished her by leaving her on her own in a wheelchair in a side room.

Yesterday's report claiming that the elderly are routinely abused in their own homes should come as no surprise, because they are routinely abused in public. Both of the examples above are among hundreds of similar stories that have been posted on Gransnet since we launched in May this year; our members are of the generation that is caring for elderly parents and they are often subject to ageism themselves. One member, helped up the ward by a physio following an operation, was asked: "Do you use a stick at home, dear?" To which she replied, through gritted teeth: "No, at home I use a bicycle."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission report follows similar revelations highlighting widespread mistreatment of the elderly in hospitals; plus a series of alarming bulletins from the Care Quality Commission on abuse in hospitals and care homes. This all adds up to an epidemic of casual cruelty. If children were being physically hurt, emotionally taunted, stolen from and starved by adults who were supposed to be looking after them, there would be outrage. As it is, we mutter about carers being overworked and underpaid and shrug over budget cuts and the state of the economy. It's as if, deep down, we accept that abuse of the elderly is always with us.

Of course, the money matters. If care workers had more than 15 minutes to spend on a visit, they could undoubtedly do their jobs better. Following £1.3bn of cuts, their schedules are stretched to tearing point (and, let's face it, their time was never valued highly in the first place). Cuts are manifestly making neglect more likely.

But it's not all about money. A teacher who manhandled and pushed a child or humiliated him about his failings would never get away with blaming a heavy workload. Underlying lack of funding is a deeply ingrained ageism: old people are mistreated because old people are loathed in our culture and caring for them is seen as something faintly degrading. Ageism is widespread and almost invisible, and its most casual, innocent forms lay the ground for pernicious cruelty. Everyone who makes a casual ageist remark, despises someone for not being young, or fears growing old (which is not the same thing as dying) is a little bit culpable of these acts of violence and disdain.

Geraldine Bedell is Editor of 'Gransnet':

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