Across the Arab world, people are fond of recounting a popular horror story about the West. A few years ago, I overheard a middle- aged man in a Syrian souq tell his children: "When Westerners get old and can't look after themselves, their families send them off to live in big buildings. They visit them once a week, if that, and let nurses do the rest. Sometimes, they forget them all together, and old people die alone and crying for their families."
He could have added - if he had read a survey released this week - that we drug them into catatonia if they begin to rebel against their abandonment. The journal Age and Ageing has found that almost a quarter of people in nursing homes are being given powerful psychiatric medicines - and of those, a chilling 80 per cent were prescribed either for the wrong reason, without proper monitoring of the effects, or without any thought as to whether the patient's condition still required it. This is even more scandalous than many front-page child-abuse shocks because it is much more widespread and systematised. Yet it was reported, if at all, only on the inside pages of our newspapers.
A friend of mine has recently switched from working in an old people's home (and by no means a bad one) to working with children who have cerebral palsy. She was startled by the difference in standards of care. "When I started working with the elderly, I was given three days' training - two of which consisted just of watching the other care workers doing their job. That was it," she explains.
"But before I could do anything with the kids I work with now, I had a week of detailed training courses, and I'll be on probation - where I'm very carefully monitored - for another 26 weeks," she continued. "It's only when I got the training in my new job that I realised how unprepared I was before. I didn't know really basic things about how to lift people without harming them or causing them distress. Why are the elderly worth so much less than disabled kids?" The truth is that old people aren't sexy. We don't like to think about all that sagging flesh and those failing bladders; much easier to sympathise with doe-eyed children.
Numbers, numbers, numbers - if politicians bothered to make up soundbites about care of the elderly, this would be it. The number of care workers is not nearly high enough. Disabled children have, at most, a child-to- care-worker ration of two to one. It is a sign of how little we care about the old that, as Polly Toynbee's new book Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain explains, nobody even bothers to compile national statistics about the ratio of care workers to the elderly. It seems anecdotally to be around six to one. Quality care is impossible in this situation; instead, we end up with factory-farming of the old. They are fed, washed and clothed, but there is no time to treat them as individuals.
The mass drugging stems from the numbers problem. If you have no time to talk to a distressed old person, it's much easier to give them a pill. New Labour took several steps forward last year when they introduced much higher care regulations, mandating, for example, that all old people are entitled to a room and toilet of their own. Yet, dismayingly, the Government retracted many of these commitments this week - and the numbers problem festers on.
Yet even if we had extremely high-quality, well-funded homes (a distant dream), we would still have high numbers of old people on drugs, especially anti-depressants, because of a simple fact: being left in even the best care home in the world is appallingly depressing. …