Lack of Respect?
February 27, 2008
As a young nurse I found caring for elderly, infirm people a bit of a challenge. While I got on well with my own older relatives none of them were actually that old. I found it difficult to relate to people who were confused, infirm and often incontinent. My elderly care placement during my training was not my favorite. I have memories of a night spent changing the bed of one patient probably 10 times due to her diarrhea and urinary incontinence. I am not sure if we had any pads but we certainly can’t have been using them. However I do know that we treated that old lady with compassion as we turned her washed her and made her comfortable even when she fought with us during her confusion.
Even though this wasn’t my favourite group of patients, I was a nurse, it was my job to provide the best nursing care to everyone I came into contact with. What’s more older people have always been pretty large users of the health services, so there was no real way of getting away from them (unless you went into children’s nursing and I didn’t really feel drawn to that specialty either). Gradually I discovered that having multiple illnesses didn’t render people senile just because they were over 70 and I also found that even those who couldn’t recognise their own relatives had feelings and could feel pain. These people had (often until days before) led active lives, they had been people with important jobs; they had managed large families and of course had lived through and often fought in world wars.
It is some time since I can say I nursed a patient but I have heard plenty of tales of things not being right when it comes to the care of elderly people I have heard the way nurses and those meant to be carers have spoken to older people and I have been told of the experiences of others. Today a parliamentary select committee report has stated that “an entire culture of change” is needed in the way older people are treated within the health care system. They say that people’s human rights are being abused as those who should be caring for them leave them with inadequate food and hydration, do not respect privacy, roughly handle them and generally handle these vulnerable people in a manner they would not (I hope) treat their dog. Age concern put the number of older people in the UK suffering neglect in this way at 500,000. This is taking place in hospitals and care homes alike and no doubt also in people’s own homes.
I have always tried to gauge the appropriate level of care to be that which I would expect for my own grandmother (or other close relative) and in my view this appears to fall pretty far short. If we are to believe this reports and the anecdotes that litter the newspapers and internet sites on an almost daily basis then nursing faces a major challenge. Many of these older people probably do not come into contact with a qualified nurse on a daily basis, but of course some will. It is however, up to nurses to set the standards here, to demonstrate the attitudes and level of care that everyone who comes in contact with them should expect. It is up to us to be vigilant, to listen to the stories of our patients and their families, it is up to us to report poor care and to make every attempt to change it. As relatives and as people who for example pass through a nursing home or hospital we must be prepared to blow the whistle on poor care, on verbal and on physical abuse. Elderly people account for a very large and growing proportion of our population. We must treat them with the respect they deserve. Don’t forget one day that will be us.