Patient care: NHS care of the elderly - dignity or institutional ageism?

23 April 2012

Care of the elderly continues to hit the headlines following the recent release of two reports by The King’s Fund.  The reports provide shocking examples of ageism and neglect within the NHS.  It is estimated that older people account for 70% of occupied beds in hospitals.  However, despite representing the majority of patients, the research suggests that some NHS staff do not to see beyond the age of the patient and treatable conditions are left undiagnosed and ignored. 

Continuity of care was identified as one major cause for concern, with elderly patients being shunted around from ward to ward.  One woman reported that her mother had been transferred between 6 wards in 7 weeks and still the family were unable to find a consultant who knew enough about her to update them.   Another criticism was poor cooperation between service providers; one patient had a hospital bed at home without a mattress - providing the mattress was deemed to be the responsibility of a different organisation; one frail elderly lady was repeatedly called by the wrong name when no one took the time to correct her chart; another patient’s dentures were lost between wards; vulnerable patients have been discharged without family members being informed; bed-bound patients press call buttons in the middle of the night and no one comes to help. Tellingly, some doctors were even heard referring to elderly patients as “bed blockers”. 

A lack of continuity of care and a breakdown in communication between patients and medical staff can leave vulnerable elderly people feeling anything from isolated and distressed to patronised and frustrated.  And yet, life expectancies are increasing and a third of babies will now live to 100.  More and more patients are facing these difficulties at a time when NHS resources are being stretched ever further; however, it is hoped that the reports by The King’s Fund will help to raise the priority of elderly care on the government’s agenda.  The absence of dignified healthcare for an ageing population challenges the values we purport to hold as a nation and is a time bomb that needs to be addressed now before it is too late.

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