Poor treatment of older people in the NHS is an attitude problem
By Michelle Mitchell
Health service ombudsman report reveals shocking treatment of the over-65s, who are being failed again and again
Mrs H was an independent woman who lived on her own until the age of 88 and loved literature and crosswords. This picture of this strong, dignified woman contrasts with the appalling treatment she suffered at the hands of the NHS. After a spell in hospital following a fall, she arrived at a care home with numerous injuries, soaked with urine and dressed in clothing that did not belong to her held up with paper clips. She had several bags of dirty clothing with her, much of which did not belong to her and just a few possessions left of her own. She was highly distressed, dishevelled and confused and had lost 5kg (11lb) since her admission to hospital. She died in August 2010.
This is just one of 10 shocking stories of people aged over 65 documented in a new report by the health service ombudsman . It highlights a range of clinical and operational failures; people at the end of life being discharged from hospital without correct pain relief, failure to deal with infection properly, malnutrition and dehydration. These are by no means isolated cases – 18% of complaints to the ombudsman last year were about care of older people and they investigated more than twice as many as for all other age groups put together.
Yet, as the ombudsman, Ann Abraham, reflects, this report reveals that at the heart of the problem is an attitude – both personal and institutional – which fails to treat older patients compassionately or respond to their individual emotional and social needs. One family was not informed when their father’s life support machine was switched off; a husband was left in a waiting room, forgotten about while his wife lay dying in the ward next door; a man with advanced stomach cancer was left behind a drawn curtains desperate to go to the toilet and unable to ask for help because he was so dehydrated he could not speak properly or swallow.
It’s difficult to imagine us allowing any other group of people to suffer this indignity and neglect, yet when it comes to older people it’s commonplace; as a society we often fail to value or treat older people equally.
But this report also demands answers to some difficult questions to those leading the NHS through the proposed set of reforms. Will this huge shakeup reduce the risk of older people receiving this sort of treatment? Do they promise any positive change for vulnerable, frail patients?
I remain unconvinced that, as the reforms stand, they will deliver the improvements to the health outcomes and care of older people that are so urgently needed. For the sake of all the people featured in this report and all of us who need NHS care now and in the future, the secretary of state needs to answer these questions.