Leading article: Treatment of the elderly is a national disgrace

It is too easy to blame budget cuts or work pressures and look no further
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The Independent Online

Evidence of the routinely appalling treatment of old people in Britain's hospitals should stand as a warning to us all. The latest Care Quality Commission (CQC) research paints a picture of shameful inhumanity: elderly patients not helped to eat and drink, left lying in soiled clothing, reduced to rattling their bed bars to attract attention as calls for help go unheeded. Neither are such horror stories isolated incidents. In one in five hospitals, nursing care for older patients is so bad it is breaking the law. Fully 40 per cent fall short of basic levels of dignity and respect.

The CQC identifies the causes as a failure of leadership, poor attitudes and squeezed resources. Such matters do, of course, require attention. But it is too easy to blame budget cuts or work pressures and look no further. In fact, the dysfunction in the NHS is merely the most egregious illustration of a far wider malaise. In a society obsessed with youth, the elderly are abused, neglected and ignored to a degree that is both morally inexcusable and to the cultural detriment of all. The incidents described by the CQC are not just failures of management; they show an absence of kindness and compassion that is an indictment of society as a whole.

Perhaps the most striking proof of Britain's collective lack of attention to old people is that so little in the CQC's report is actually new. The parallels with a Patients Association study two years ago, and with another investigation four years before that, are disturbing. Each new revelation produces a momentary spasm of public outrage, but there are few significant improvements.

It is not only hospitals at fault. Investigations into care homes for the elderly too frequently tell similar tales of inadequate food, brutally inflexible regimes and basic physical needs not met – not to mention the heartbreaking loneliness and boredom. Similarly, charities complain that fewer than 10 per cent of older people suffering from clinical depression are referred for treatment – compared with 50 per cent of younger sufferers – because their problems are written off as a natural consequence of ageing. Sometimes horrified families campaign for better treatment of their elderly relatives. All too often they do not.

Such discrimination would be alarming enough on its own. But health and social care services do not exist in a vacuum. The poor treatment of the elderly by some nurses and care workers is an ugly reflection of the widespread attitude that a swift pulse counts for far more than experience and that youth owes no respect to age.

The evidence is all around us. Pensioners are typically more exposed both to economic fluctuations and to public policy decisions on everything from housing, to welfare, to fuel bills, to bus routes and post office services. Indeed, according to some estimates, more than half of older people are living on the breadline. Worse, and even more difficult to tackle, is the fact that the elderly are so often simply invisible. Accusations of ageism at the BBC are only the most high-profile cases of the elderly unthinkingly airbrushed out of the national consciousness. Old people barely feature in advertising, are rarely the target for TV and radio programming, and are even less often consulted for their views. Is it any wonder that surveys report growing numbers of the elderly feeling silenced, ridiculed and ignored?

The erosion of respect for older people has many causes, not least modern society's weaker, more dispersed families, more demanding work patterns, and less prescriptive social roles. But explanations are no acquittal. Not only is Britain's treatment of the elderly a national disgrace. Given that the number of people aged over 85 will double over the next two decades, we will reap what we sow.

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