Until We Treat Our Old with Dignity, How Can We Claim to Be a Civilised Society? Writer FRAN ABRAMS, Who Worked Undercover in Care Homes, Says Yesterday's Report on the Treatment of the Elderly Shames Us All

Article excerpt

Byline: FRAN ABRAMS

ADA is someone I will never forget.

She was a sweet, very frail lady in her 80s and we used to have lovely chats about her life - about the shop she used to run, about her church, about how she once went to London on the train with her husband to see the Queen.

But my abiding memory of Ada is of none of those things.

The image in my mind is of Ada's terrified face, the twisted 'O' of her mouth as she was dragged physically from her chair by two care assistants in the home where she lived, and where I worked. It was bath day - though no one had paid Ada the courtesy of telling her that.

Instead, the two women simply marched up to Ada and grabbed her from her chair as she sat chatting to me. As a preliminary, one of them cried 'Ada!

Walkies!', as though she were a dog being dragged out for a morning stroll.

Ada had no time to collect herself, let alone to say whether she wanted a bath. With no more ado she was hauled to her feet and half- dragged, halfcarried from the room, her delicate legs flailing in the air. She began to cry out: 'Oh, please don't do this to me!' Ten minutes later she was dumped unceremoniously back into her chair, dishevelled, damp and distressed.

The incident - four years ago in Aberdeenshire - was the worst I witnessed during undercover investigations which led me to work in a number of care homes, both in Scotland and in England. It was the sharp end of a very long wedge of neglect, thoughtlessness and downright disrespect.

So I, for one, was not surprised by yesterday's report by three major watchdog bodies about the shoddy and downright cruel way we treat elderly people in Britain today.

The report, by the Healthcare Commission, the Audit Commission and the Commission for Social Care Inspection, criticised staff who care for the elderly in hospitals for their patronising demeanour and for 'a deep-rooted cultural attitude' to ageing.

During my investigations, I had seen this casual cruelty meted out so many times, in so many ways. It wasn't just Ada (though I am still haunted by my memories of the staff at her home who were so callous they would even take bets - in Ada's presence - on how long it would be before she began to cry).

There were other examples, too numerous to mention.

Another resident was labelled 'spoilt' because she occasionally complained about the way she was treated.

When she said her ankle hurt, no one took any notice. Weeks went by before she finally saw a doctor, who spotted straight away that it was broken. I dread to think of the agony she must have endured in the interim.

Fortunately, such stories are confined to a few particular institutions.

Most care homes do not behave with that degree of inhumanity.

But as yesterday's report made clear, there are other, more widespread practices in hospitals and day care centres right across the country that are robbing the elderly of their dignity and self-respect.

In truth, there is so much we can all learn from our older generation. And the first thing we should ask them to teach us is how to seek out and to rebuild the mutual esteem that we - and they - have lost.

How can it be acceptable that less than half of the toilets in NHS geriatric wards surveyed were found to meet cleanliness targets?

How can it be right that nine years after Labour promised to abolish mixed sex wards, some of the most vulnerable members of our community are still suffering that humiliation?

Such practices can, and must, be stopped with significant extra investment in geriatric services. But there are many other - much more subtle - ways in which older people can be made to feel they are cherished and respected and which would cost nothing to introduce. …