Stereotyping is pervasive and dangerous
Go into a shop selling cards – any shop, and it will not take you long to find some examples expressing some of the worst caricatures associated with older people and ageing. The negative stereotyping of older people and ageing, in the absence of a strong counterfoil, creates an environment in which the contribution of older people in society, the strengths and positives they offer, their sense of self-worth and value is eroded or lost.
For some this is a vicious spiral that generates anxiety and self-doubt, a reluctance to speak up and seek help, ignoring the vital and important role in society that older people have. But it isn't just the celebratory cards in shops. Action by the government and professional bodies can have a similarly negative impact, generating images that may not have been intended but occur all the same.
For example, the concentration and profile of acute hospital pressures are often seen in the context of older people filling hospital beds, becoming 'delayed discharges' (an example of how to depersonalise a very personal experience). This is interpreted as 'older people are bed blockers'.
There are examples where this has led to situations where older people are reluctant to seek help or even refuse it because they don't want to be a burden, despite their very real needs for health and social care support.
“Uncooperative and aggressive” or just confused and disorientated?
The consequences are insidious, sometimes hidden in individual stories and sometimes widespread and blatant. Here is one, very real and contemporary story:
My father, amongst several conditions, was also diagnosed with dementia. He was admitted to hospital where he instantly became disorientated as he was out of his context and his environment. He did not recognise me and other family members and was 'disruptive' on the ward.
He thought he was in an airport and couldn't understand why someone (a stranger) was trying to undress him. So what would your response be to this scenario? Understandably he resisted, became agitated and violent.
He was labelled as uncooperative, aggressive and about to be transferred to a psychiatric ward.
My mother was questioned whether she would 'manage' him at home. My mother was a retired geriatric nurse in good health and I was a social worker. We knew the system, we knew my dad and we knew what we wanted as a family. We fought to get him home and shortly after we achieved that goal, his confusion was massively reduced. He knew where he was, who we all were and most of all, he got to say all he had to say to each one of us.
Navigating that discharge and getting him home was a real battle and he had a hospital stay of nine days when he could have been home in two.
Assets not burdens
This is a familiar story and let's face it, older people are not responsible for filling up our hospitals. It's the failure of successive governments over many years to invest in primary and community health and care services so that hospitals are used for their intended purpose. The Association of Directors of Public Health recently reported that older people contribute some £61 billion to the UK economy and yet many older people (76%) feel the country does not make the most effective use of their skills and talent.
Isn't it time we saw older people as assets and not burdens?
Have you been affected by any of these issues?
If you have been affected by any of the issues described in this blog, or simply need someone to reach out to, you can call the Alzheimer's Society helpline for information and advice on 0300 222 1122 or ask a question on their online community 'Talking Point'.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.