Damning, harrowing, disgraceful, shameful, shocking, inhumane and callous. The headline writers had a field day this week following the report by the NHS ombudsman Ann Abrahams, describing the care of ten elderly patients.
No one can deny that the care these individuals received was terrible. Perhaps an even more shocking fact is that I’m sure there is not one single doctor reading this who can’t call to mind at least one similar case.
Why, then, is it such a difficult nut to crack? Why, with all the extra resource which has been put into the NHS since 2000, is this still happening? Does it, as the government would have us believe, reflect an inherent problem with the NHS as an organisation?
“No” said Ray Tallis, arguing articulately on the Today programme. Elderly patients can receive equally terrible care in non-NHS institutions, for instance private nursing homes.
But it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of any organisation, and shows us at our very worst, with everyone involved (nurses, doctors and managers) rushing to blame each other.
While individuals need to take responsibility for their own actions, we also need to look at wider causes. As a society, it is undeniable that we do not value old people. We worship youth - in fact the media is obsessed with it. Actors and presenters (at least the female ones) are dropped at the first sight of a wrinkle. Old people are a nuisance, expensive, and not even nice to look at. They can’t get to grips with new technology, and struggle with mobile phones. Everything has to be explained - often several times, and they don‘t understand our jokes. They drive far too slowly, hogging the middle lane. There’s nothing glamorous about old age, especially when it’s poor, with bad teeth and dementia.
I remember once having a frank conversation with a group of medical students who were unimpressed with their placement on an elderly care ward because the patients, they complained, “take so long to give a history”. How boring and tedious examining an 80-year-old in chronic heart failure, when their friends were coming home with stories of articulate young patients on coronary care. So much quicker and more exciting.
Consider also how we regard people who do jobs which involve getting their hands dirty - whether that be cleaning, looking after elderly people, or mending cars. The further removed you are from the actual dirt, the more highly you are respected, and the more you get paid.
If we don’t respect or value those who care for elderly patients, is it so surprising that elderly patients are sometimes treated disrespectfully? Nor are compassion and kindness encouraged in our modern world - you only have to watch an episode of Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice to see those qualities lose out every time to selfishness, greed and arrogance.
Perhaps a few of those newspapers which so quickly rushed to press, should seriously think about how they portray older people. Yes, the NHS must get its house in order - but it can’t cure all the ills of society.