The British government are planning on introducing measures to ensure that elderly people are treated with respect by hospitals and care professionals.
This time last year, I led a shuttle life, with trips back to London as often as I could to be with my mother in the last weeks of her life.
I witnessed a stream of visitors to her home, and the confusion they caused her by their behaviour.
Her experiences weren’t horrific, like the many stories of older people being abused and neglected in hospitals and nursing homes, but they do give an insight into the institionalised nature of this problem.
An encounter would start like this:
“I’m Shelly, and I’m here to ask you a few questions.”
My mother struggled to understand, not because she was old, nor because of the cluster tumours in her brain, but because she had never met Shelly before and had no idea why she was there.
But my mother wasn’t stupid, so she tried to find out.
“I’m sorry Shelly, can you tell me where you’re from and why you’re here?” she asked.
“I’m from the Council, and I need to ask you some questions.”
Shelly pointed to a bundle of papers she’d brought with her, without giving an indication of what was in them. After ten minutes of evasion, we learned that Shelly was from the Home Care team run by Social Services.
That’s not so hard to understand is it?
So why didn’t Shelly just say so in the first place?
The real purpose of her visit was to reassess (or cut) the pitiful level of practical support my mother was getting, but we weren’t really expecting her to own up to that upfront.
My mother said to one of her visitors, it may even have been Shelly:
“I have a brain tumour – I am not deaf and I am most definitely not stupid. Please just explain clearly what you want.”
The tumour affected her short-term memory – so she wrote everything down, it affected her command of speech but she was able to understand – as long as someone explained.
I’m still angry about the way some people treated her. She was admitted to hospital because the budget holders couldn’t agree who would pay for her much needed care, and she ended up lying on the floor for 8 hours, unable to get help.
If she had reached the Macmillan ward, it would probably have been another story, but she was put in a ward attached to the accident and emergency unit, where she was ignored for a week. I suppose we should be thankful that they remembered to feed her.
Others were heroes, like the fabulous palliative consultant Dr Moorsom, who treated her with respect and spoke to her like she was another intelligent human being.
Other amazing people were the care assistants, who bathed and fed her and always treated her with dignity.
Not so good was Shola, the district nurse.
I suppose that no one’s sure how to behave with people in the face of death unless you have some direct personal experience, and maybe the Shellys were doing the best they could. (I’m not so willing to forgive Shola, but that’s another story).
I hope that by the time all the Shellys who she met are old enough to experience for themselves that their behaviour just wasn’t not good enough, the changes will have been put in place.
It’s not rocket science.
It’s not even science – it’s just common sense.