Yvonne Roberts: The way we treat the elderly shames us all

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The Independent Online

Baby boomers, born in the post-war era, like to look after themselves. What many don't realise is that some may soon enter a world as alien and hostile as the frozen wastes of Siberia. The passport to this territory comes once they receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease (AD) or, at an even earlier age, try to provide suitable care for an elderly relative ravaged by the illness .

Research published this week indicates that there may soon be a simple skin test which can give an early diagnosis. The good news is that an American study of several hundred nuns established that while some post-mortems revealed the potholed brains that normally indicates AD, while alive they never showed the degeneration associated with Alzheimer's. A possible reason? An active and engaged life.

The bad news is that medical advances now mean that a section of us will, nevertheless, discover, in middle age, that while life may begin at 40 - it's also likely to end in a horrific vegetative state several decades later.

My father, aged 84, was diagnosed with AD a year ago. Now, he's in a psychiatric hospital. He's lost his power of speech. He is incontinent and treats night as day. On a visit, he is delighted to see us, although not entirely sure why. Later, he looks at us with the distracted curiosity of a stranger at a bus stop. Like many people with relatives suffering from AD, we have battled, not least to ensure that the NHS cares for him and pays for his treatment.

At one stage, we visited several private homes. With two exceptions, the standards were heartbreakingly poor. Elderly people stacked up in converted Victorian semi-detached houses accorded desperately little personal dignity. Some were paying dearly for this "privilege", though they are ill, not just frail.

So, how can that change? Perhaps as more of us become aware of what lies ahead, the pressure to invest properly in the elderly will become an irresistible force on politicians - aware that it is those over 60 who are most likely to vote. Since 2003, a succession of investigations, including those by the King's Fund, has pointed out that in spite of a raft of government initiatives advocating independence and high-quality care, in practice, services for the elderly are in crisis. The old are being robbed of their rightful resources. That has to change.

What also needs immediate attention is the provision of drugs to help with AD. On Monday, Nice - the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, an independent organisation set up by government to offer guidance on treatments - should have responded to an appeal against its 2005 decision to restrict the use of the drugs Ebixa, Reminyl, Aricept and Exelon given to some AD sufferers.

These drugs work. Still, Nice has said that the drugs can only be given once a person has deteriorated, and not in the early stages - say, soon after a skin test. This is contrary to every government diktat on the importance of prevention. Nice's view is that the NHS can't afford to do otherwise. A decision that is far more easily taken when the elderly are treated as if they are of little value.

If Nice rejects the appeal or merely tinkers with its original decision, then charities such as the Alzheimer's Society will press for a judicial review. That is also the time for us all to lobby our MPs - hard. Not just for those afflicted today but also for those among us who may hear the diagnosis tomorrow - or in the next decade.

A syrupy warning for women

Going on holiday in a couple of weeks? Don't panic. Be like Beyoncé. Buy a couple of cans of Madal Bal Natural Tree Syrup, served how we like it with a dash of cayenne pepper, and drink it through a straw. Do so while trying not to think of bacon sandwiches, chilled white wine - or the £40 per can it's costing you to eat nothing.

Beyoncé claims to have lost 20lbs sipping syrup. Nutritionists are aghast, warning that it can do you no good at all. As if dieting is ever an exercise in rationality. Desperate women don't care. It's Beyoncé's shrink rap they're after - even if, as we now discover, weight loss accelerates cellulite so thighs look like cattle grids. The alternative, of course, is to tell yourself, as Beyoncé once did, that big is booty-ful.

* Most car boot sales these days consist of plastic animals garnered from cornflake packets, tin tea trays bearing the portrait of a five-year-old flamenco dancer, and ancient binoculars. These are hard times. So Princess Michael of Kent has finally managed to achieve something of note by leaving enough rubbish in her manor to create a right royal bric-à-brac bonanza. Aficionados who spend every weekend trawling car parks in the hope of a find will be delighted. Gold lacquered horses, ceramic cats and that old favourite, an exercise machine, are up for sale - soon, no doubt, to make their debut on the internet.Thus will Princess Pushy finally be granted the elevation she has hungered after for so long. Arise, Her Royal Majesty the Queen - albeit of eBay.

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