Around us, every-where, people are ageing. In the UK, our population is largely moving towards a structure where we have less people being born and more people living on to an older age. But when you look at the healthcare system, there is little infrastructure to cope with the resulting ageing population.
Today, I went volunteering and did my own ‘ward round’ which consisted of chatting to the patients and checking that they had all that they needed in the way of water and other basic amenities. As I went, I asked how people were doing bracing myself for the fact that the question ‘are you doing ok’ is something of a dangerous one as the answers I am given are often outside my volunteer training and current skill set. This is deeply frustrating as I would love to be able to do more for the patients I interact with, yet even simple tasks such as accompanying someone to the bathroom I’m not allowed at my level. More and more over the past few weeks I have noticed how growing old is totally degrading and that often – as weird as it sounds- I have had a tendency to wrongly romanticise ageing (but don’t retired people look like they have such fun? Coffee dates, walking around national trust gardens- need I say more?) In reality, it can be totally degrading: it can become difficult to carry out basic functions, such as feeding yourself, and you’re reverted back to the child-like state of being totally dependent on others to help you. But there’s a huge difference between the situation of a child and of someone who’s elderly: old people aren’t cute so they are overlooked, leaving a shortage of funding and manpower to service their needs. (*see bottom of post).
Contrast the elderly with a baby: a baby can neither feed itself, nor use a toilet but yet people are willing to change their nappies and treat them with love and patience all because they are under the blessing of being rather sweet. Of course I am not saying that babies should be abandoned by the wayside, but why, when we have an ageing population (and this is certainly the case in the town I live in) is there a lack of dignity and care for those who are growing older as their independence slips away from them. Most of us will be faced with the reality of growing old, yet we avoid the thought of what it will actually be like for us. What if we end up in hospital due to a stroke or early onset dementia? What then? Surely we would want there to be enough support so that we could remain cared for even at our most vulnerable. Sadly, this is not paid much thought to until we happen to find ourselves in a care home one day.
The health care system is all about providing care indiscriminately for those who are in need, at the time that they need it, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to do that and hospitals are entering into health care politics. I am not criticising the work that the staff do, as I have witnessed countless members of the team endeavouring to care for each patient with the warmth and respect that they deserve and value. No, rather I am calling out the fact that something is not working and this is leaving gaps in the structure and functioning of the health care team that we so value.
I recognise that I am not the most educated person on the effects of the changing age demographic in our country and its relationship to the situation of the NHS, but as an active member of the community and an aspiring medic, I’m reserving the right to comment on what I observe! There’s so much of the conduct of the members of the health service that is inspiring and admirable and it distresses me that no matter how hard they work, there is never enough energy and time to give to their patients. While I have never witnessed abuse on my ward, I have witnessed what I will call ‘unintended neglect’ with patients refusing to drink for fear there won’t be anyone to take them to the toilet! Something does need to change, and it’s not going to be a decrease in the country’s elderly population. So what else needs to give? Only time will tell.
*I wrote this post a few weeks ago and it has sat unedited since then. Rather interestingly, I read an article in the daily telegraph today about the crisis in care of the elderly. It described how cases of abuse and neglect rose by 33% between 2013/14-2015/16. However, cases of abuse in children also rose by 4% in just 2 years, highlighting how my earlier comment about the cuteness of children safeguarding them may have been made rather naively.