Caring for Our Elders
There is much to be said about our ageing population and the need for strategies to help pay for the NHS in light of it (1).
I’m increasingly moved when I hear of those that I speak to that live alone, are elderly, and have recently fallen at home and sustained injuries. Sometimes they are found when the carer pops in on their twice daily 15 mins slots (usually arranged to make them a hot drink and ensure their medication is taken). Other times they have no care package arranged as yet and this latest fall heralds their increasing frailty. Some fall and they then struggle, sometimes for up to 9 hours, to scramble and crawl with their injuries across the floor from one side of their living room to the nearest phone, often in the hallway to call themselves an ambulance.
I listen in silent horror whilst they recount their experiences and am moved to tears. These are feats of sheer human determination and will. As they describe the ordeal, I envisage them desperate, gasping in thirst and exhaustion, crawling commando-style, willing their bodies to do what seems humanly impossible. One described having visions of themselves dying right there in the sitting room and not being found for days.
Yes, there are many elderly people well looked after by supportive relatives and neighbours that have gone above and beyond what society expects of them particularly in our bustling sprawling cities. However, even one of these stories is a real tragedy in our civilized democratic modern western society that we plainly are not getting right.
Somehow our cultural insistence of individual responsibility, adding value and the paradigm of independence as the highest ideals to aspire to means we are in danger of not remembering what corporate responsibility really means. It’s easy to be “connected” to so many people far away from us. Many of us, particularly those of us who have had nomadic work and lifestyles don’t know the names of our neighbours.
As healthcare leaders, we are crucially placed to be advocates and speak up for the silent many, and to encourage those that are finding innovative ways to tackle the challenge of loneliness.
There are inspiring examples of how people have committed to helping their local elderly.
In the Netherlands, there is a scheme where students live with low cost rent with elderly residents (2). They provide practical help at meal times and also visit elderly people to provide regular social contact. There is a interdependent symbiosis in this model which I find particularly admirable.
Two other recent examples that are innovative global movements that people are using to care for the elderly.
One is a cycling based experience where the elderly are cycled in a stylised rickshaw so they can feel the wind in their hair. A medical student taking on this challenge in Scotland has been recently featured on BBC III. Similarly featured on the Amazing Humans series is another befriending movement in the Doncaster area (3).
Countless other social and religious groups and individuals care for local elderly people in many ways. Such as driving them to hospital appointments. Charities such as Age UK (4) have been going for many years strategically and crucially delivering advocacy at a policy and an individual level.
I know those who have moved their elders into the home with them finding ways in which they can combine busy careers with ensuring their elders are well supported to help them retain their confidence and have adapted their homes appropriately to support multigenerational living.
Caring for the elderly isn’t easy. It can be physically, mentally and financially challenging. Sometimes, it’s necessary to forgive them especially if there has been a situation that has caused a grievance. However, it is a crucial part of the circle of life to care for the most vulnerable or differently able in our society including the young and the old. Selfishly, it is in our interests that we get better at this. The generations that follow us will, no doubt, learn how to care for us based on what they have grown up watching us do.
Consultant Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgeon
Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust