Ageism is more than a word

Just how bad do things have to get before we do something significant to protect vulnerable older people from neglect and abuse?

A British Medical Journal report a couple of weeks ago stated that ‘elderly care home residents are routinely being prescribed dangerous ‘chemical cosh’ drugs to keep them sedated with one in five being given antipsychotics to control their behaviour’.  It said that more than three quarters of the prescriptions were ‘excessive’.

This would be absolutely shocking if it was a new situation. But it is worse than shocking, because it has been known for more than ten years. Previous research showed that those ‘coshed’ in this manner are up to nine times more likely to have a stroke and twice as likely to die early, with the drugs hastening their mental decline. A major Government review of their use in 2009 called for such prescriptions to be reduced by two thirds in four years.  Instead the prescription rates have actually increased.

Despite all the evidence of the harmful effects of such drugs, care homes are continuing and increasing their usage. The main reason given to Action on Elder Abuse is because it has a beneficial impact on staffing levels which otherwise would have to increase.  So money is speaking louder than the needs of the older people.

How can such a situation arise? 

Last week the owners of a care home company (with a £50m turnover) were fined £1.6m for systematic and systemic failures that led to a 91 year old woman freezing to death in one of their homes.  Her core temperature was 25 degrees centigrade, ten degrees below the hypothermia threshold. The company was cutting corners, to save money. And someone died of hypothermia in a care home, in the 21st century, in Britain.

Her son commented afterward, “No fine, no matter how large could ever replace a loved one; what price can you put on your mother’s life?”

The company were charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. You might wonder why this legislation was used? Because there was no other legislative option to pursue charges. It was not possible to legally pursue the individuals responsible for this appalling situation. So the company was ‘charged, but everyone else walked away without consequences.

I must ask again. How can such a situation arise?

And last week a report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the House of Commons said that frail elderly people were being sent home from hospital in the dead of night because of a fundamental breakdown of the health and social care system.

Cases examined included an 85-year-old with dementia, sent home at 11pm, without food, drink or bedding, and unable to get to the toilet.  Another older woman died in her granddaughter’s arms, hours after being sent home by doctors who failed to examine her. Imagine what that must have felt like, for both of them.

An earlier NHS Ombudsman report saw a 36 per cent rise in discharge-related investigations in 2015 and found that some deaths and incidents of suffering could have been prevented if hospitals had carried out the right checks before discharging people.  The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Julie Mellor said, “These shocking failures will continue to happen unless the government tackles the heart of the problem – the chronic underfunding of social care”.  Money again.

How can such a situation arise?

In each case we are talking about very vulnerable and very frail old people.  Care workers, doctors and nurses are doing this to them, often with the involvement of numerous other people. Numerous other, ordinary people who no doubt otherwise lead quite normal lives. And yet no one calls time out, says stop, or seems to question what they and others are doing.

This is institutional ageism at its worst. It is the classification of human beings in a manner that lets them be treated in a way that would not be tolerated if we were looking at other people in society, or even animals. Could you imagine the reaction if a child or a dog died of malnutrition in an institution charged with their protection in Britain? Or if a child that displayed ‘challenging behaviour’ was routinely drugged to keep them docile?

That’s how these situations can arise. Because we are treating our old people in a manner that degrades them, and lessens their rights to justice, dignity and humanity.

So, if this bothers you, sign our petition to seek an aggravated offence of elder abuse. And let’s stop this, now.

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