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Leading article: A society lacking in humanity

It is not enough to be shocked at the report by the Health Service Ombudsman into the care of old people in Britain's hospitals, which found thousands of examples of patients who were left hungry, thirsty, unwashed, in soiled clothes, and without adequate pain relief. We have had report after report, and platitude after platitude in official responses, but nothing seems to change. Why? It is not a question of money. New Labour has pumped billions in extra resources into healthcare.

In part, perhaps, it is a function of size. The NHS has 1.3 million employees whose impersonal structures mitigate against the development of real bonds between individual staff and patients. Too often the NHS seems focused on the interests of staff rather than patients. In part, it is a focus on systems, targets and box-ticking which robs staff of the time to talk and care for patients as people with emotional needs as well as medical problems. That will only get worse as the looming £20bn of cuts come in. Time to care for patients is likely to be squeezed.

But our lack of humanity and compassion to the elderly reflects an increased self-focus in our society in general. Decades of growing affluence and consumption have amplified our desire for individual gratification. Ours is a selfish society, less and less concerned with recognising the humanity and individuality of others. Old people bear the burden of that callousness. Last year almost 9,000 complaints were made to the Health Ombudsman. Of those, nearly 20 per cent were about the care of the elderly. They are marginalised, neglected and poorly treated because they come from a generation which "doesn't like to make a fuss" or whose members are less able to stand up for themselves.

The modern cult of youth only exacerbates the patronising and thoughtless treatment meted out to those who are deemed "past it". For a while we may pause and express outrage. But we then move on to the urgent business of our daily lives. Spot checks by hit squads of inspectors may arrest the worst practice in our hospitals and care homes. But they will not do much about a society that has hardened its heart against its elderly.