Gina Davidson: Don’t get old in this sick society

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THE irony would hardly be any more obvious if it was painted red, white and blue. As hundreds of thousands of people bedecked their houses in bunting, waved flags, bought commemorative mugs and turned out on The Mall to cheer an old lady who’s never needed her free bus pass or winter fuel allowance, it was revealed that once again, the untitled elderly are being woefully treated by as beloved an institution as the Queen – the National Health Service.

While Prince Philip was laid up in hospital with a bladder infection (very convenient if you ask me) and missed two days of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, it would never have crossed his 90-year-old mind that one might be asked to vacate one’s bed at 2am and be told to clear orf back to the palace by some medical oik. Yet that seems to be the way hundreds of elderly people are being treated in Edinburgh, at the never-more-inappropriately named, Royal Infirmary.

It’s hard to throw criticism at Edinburgh’s main hospital when it’s in the midst of a Legionnaires’ outbreak and pulling out all the stops to deal with that. And of course there are, no doubt, many reasonable-sounding if common-sense-escaping explanations for why the numbers which show elderly people being discharged from hospital at inappropriate times appear to be on the up. I’m sure NHS Lothian will trot them out – it’s good at explaining away figures, after all.

But here’s the thing: it just shouldn’t happen.

Yes, there’s pressure on hospital beds, I can’t remember a time when there hasn’t been. But the answer can’t be to tell an 80-something-year-old man or woman to get up, get dressed, get out and make your own way home . . . in the wee small hours.

Elderly, infirm, tired and confused and most likely, without anyone waiting at home for them, how does NHS Lothian expect these people to manage on their own? Which doctor or nurse would find it acceptable if such a thing happened to their own parents or grandparents?

Perhaps notices need to be attached to beds reading: “STOP! Would you do this to your own gran? Then why should it happen to this person?”

Mind you I also find it astounding that there is anyone in authority around in the early hours of the morning to sign the forms to let people go. I recall trying to get home after having a baby and waiting for hours before the correct doctor gave the OK to leave – and that was in the middle of the day with a husband waiting to collect me.

But the story about the night-time discharges comes on top of the sad case of Peggy Davis who wasn’t fed for eight days – eight days – while she was in hospital waiting for an operation which was continually postponed.

She subsequently died but despite a complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman by her daughter, the ERI was cleared of any wrong-doing, except not communicating well enough, because of Mrs Davis’ pre-exisiting conditions.

The main one obviously being the fact that she was 84. There are few 84-year-olds without some kind of health condition before they enter hospital. Which is why, you might think, they would be dealt with more appropriately.

Everyone wants to believe that every nurse and doctor work their hardest to care for patients, and I am sure nearly 100 per cent do just that. It’s also hard to imagine that medical staff look at someone who’s old and automatically downgrade their care. But the ERI has some history in this area.

It was only seven years ago when the former Lord Provost Norman Irons revealed the shocking treatment his 89-year-old mother Anne had received there. He claimed she had been killed by “basic neglect”. There was a huge outpouring of similar tales of how the elderly were cared for – or not – and it led to pledges by NHS Lothian that older people would be treated with dignity at all times.

What has happened to that idea? Or perhaps it was given the heave along with the oldies in hospital beds at midnight in the bid to massage the figures to get waiting lists down?

Of course the NHS isn’t alone in not treating the elderly with proper respect. The care home sector is full of operators looking to make money and not giving a Zimmer frame for the people in their care or for their staff who are paid minimum wage and can lack the most basic of care qualifications, and in some cases even English.

The public sector is also no shining light. In Edinburgh, new care homes have been built which are fantastic, but in terms of those who want to stay at home, social care workers are under immense strain. They don’t get given enough time to visit clients and meet their needs before they have to rush off to the next home. That’s not care.

People always say that societies can be judged on how they treat animals and children. The elderly should also be included. And given that the population is ageing at an astounding rate, the pressure on those providing the health and care services to do it properly will increase.

There’s no point boasting about free bus passes for the over-60s and winter fuel allowances if, when they need it the most, the old and infirm are being neglected and treated badly.

Personally, if it meant that one older person could spend a night in hospital and be discharged at a more civilised time I’d happily pay for my prescriptions again.