Time to stop blaming old people for NHS problems

Claire Keatinge
Claire Keatinge

With recent pressures on the Health Service in Northern Ireland, older people have been at the receiving end of a service struggling to cope, with cuts to home care packages and overflowing A & E departments regularly making the headlines.

The blame game starts, with senior figures including the Prime Minister David Cameron blaming older people for their need to use A&E, and for remaining in hospital when they are medically fit to be discharged.

These accusations often go unchallenged, and so the general public are conned into thinking that older people are the cause of the problem, removing blame from those with the power to change things and apportioning it to the most vulnerable.

Let’s look at the reality.

Northern Ireland is an ageing society, with people generally living longer and healthier lives.

This is something we should be proud of, and something that should be celebrated. But in order to enjoy the benefit of the changing profile of our society, it is essential that government planning reflects the needs of the people it is elected to serve.

Early intervention and support for older people in their own homes helps them to live healthy and independent lives for as long as possible.

But at present, domiciliary care, or “home help” as it is often called, is considered by the Health Trusts to be “discretionary spend,” and therefore something that can be cut or reduced.

When the care and support is not provided at an early stage, or is inadequate, older people are at considerably more risk.

This lack of support for people in their own homes means that when hospital treatment is required, some older people remain on wards for longer than necessary as there are delays in getting the appropriate care in place, slowing down the recovery process of the older person.

Older people don’t want to go to A & E to sit and wait for hours, nor do they want to stay in hospital any longer than they need to.

It causes fear, suffering and upset and so the suggestion that they are to blame for the inability of the system to cope is ludicrous.

It also puts huge pressure on the NHS and on staff who are trying their very best to deliver excellence in health and care in spite of the pressure they are under.

Despite the ambition of Transforming Your Care to provide more care in the community, the failure to protect community services such as domiciliary care will inevitably increase hospital admissions.

It is therefore hardly surprising that frontline services are struggling to cope.

This needs to change.

We need a health service that is fit for purpose; that meets the care needs of our society and which allows its staff to deliver excellence in health care.

This doesn’t come from the patient or service user, it comes from good planning, collaboration and investment.

It is time to stop blaming older people and for political leadership to support and defend the interests of the most vulnerable.

• Claire Keatinge is Commissioner for Older People