January 15, 2010

UK: Michael Parkinson - The dignity every mother deserves

. LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Lifestyle / Health / January 14, 2010 As his report into the care of the elderly is published, Sir Michael Parkinson recalls his year as Dignity ambassador. By Sir Michael Parkinson As the Government's Dignity ambassador, Sir Michael Parkinson toured the country, looking into the state of its care of the elderly Photo: PA It all started very suddenly, a phone call out of the blue. It came at the end of a tough period in my life. My mother had recently died, aged 96, and I’d gone through the awful experience of watching her unravel and wither over a desperate two-year period. Michael Parkinson and his mother Freda During her struggle with dementia, I was troubled by some of the care she received in hospital, in her care home and in her own home. None of this was deliberately cruel or neglectful, but there were areas where my mother wasn’t getting the help she needed or the care and attention she deserved. That bothered me. It made me wonder whether I was alone in these concerns and how we could put things right. The phone call gave me a chance to do something about it. Would I be the Government’s national Dignity ambassador? Here was a chance to put the issue of dignity in the spotlight, to challenge people’s perceptions and, I hoped, improve the way older people like my mother are looked after in the future. Since then, I’ve spent a year touring the country, meeting people and learning that many others have the same – some much worse – experiences and concerns that I had regarding the care of their loved ones. As the Government's Dignity ambassador, Sir Michael Parkinson toured the country, looking into the state of its care of the elderly Photo: PA It’s been a fantastic year. I’ve heard many stories – some of them heart-warming, others heart-wrenching, all of them showing why we need to put dignity at the heart of care. I’ve also met people determined to change things for the better, an experience both wonderful and profoundly moving. Above all, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly in how we care for older people. The year started on a high. One of my first visits was to Lavender Court in my home town of Barnsley, which really demonstrated what care for older people should be about. Rather than having just bedrooms, Lavender Court residents had self-contained apartments, designed to help them stay independent for as long as possible. More importantly, the whole culture of the place was about putting the residents in control. This was a home, not a care home – and the people who lived there decided how the place should be run and what activities should be available. That struck a real chord with me, because maintaining independence is fundamental to one’s sense of dignity and self-worth. It was because my mother was so independent and strong-minded that her swift decline into senility became so hard to watch. As her mind failed her, she became increasingly angry at what she recognised as her growing inability to run her own life. If Lavender Court was one of the goodies, sadly, there were plenty of bad examples to come. I’ve seen many hospitals and care homes repeating the mistakes I saw with my mother’s care. The majority of these were due to thoughtlessness rather than anything else – a tendency to use inappropriate and unwelcome pet names, a failure to maintain a patient’s appearance, a sense in which care is defined as filing people away in a corner quietly to die. Another example of the dehumanising of old people was a care home I visited that had numbered locks on doors throughout the building. The majority of residents there had dementia, and I understand the safety issues and the limitations of the building. But think about it from the resident’s point of view – coming across locked doors and gates in what’s meant to be your own home must be extremely confusing and distressing. Looking after someone with dementia is incredibly difficult. I don’t profess to have the perfect answer, but there has to be a better way than depersonalising them with thoughtless gestures. In fact, I know there is, because I’ve seen care homes that do everything they can to help residents stay independent and in control – and you can see how this makes all the difference to their lives. My question is: if these care homes can do it, why can’t all of them do it? So much for the bad, what about the plain ugly – the inexcusable and downright unacceptable? I didn’t see any of this myself, but I did receive letters that, frankly, appalled me. One lady told me of visiting her mother in hospital and finding her in a side room, with the door open, naked and covered in urine, having obviously been there for ages. The staff, meanwhile, were “too busy” to help. I’ve heard of older people being left without enough to eat, of food being taken away before they could eat it, or left at the end of the bed on a tray where they couldn’t reach it. The NHS complains that they don’t have enough time or money to look after their patients – that they’re too bogged down in bureaucracy to help. But, when you hear examples of cruelty like this, that argument simply falls flat on its face. It defies all logic to spend vast sums of money to keep people in hospital or a care home, and then forget to give them the most basic of human needs: enough to eat and drink. There can be no excuse, and I hope no one reading this will ever walk by if they see that sort of thing happening. We’ve all got a responsibility to be vigilant, and to act if we see people’s dignity, indeed their human rights, being violated. This has been a year of contrasts – a year in which I’ve seen the most inspiring and life-affirming examples of good care, alongside more depressing instances of casual neglect and thoughtlessness. So what have I learnt on the journey? Well, first, I’ve learnt that people can make a real difference. When I joined the Dignity programme, there were just 1,500 Dignity Champions looking out for older people in their area. Now there are more than 12,000, with more joining every day. So this is becoming a real social movement. Second, I’ve learnt that we need to change attitudes towards older people across society at large, thus ending this sense of the elderly being lesser citizens who can’t make decisions for themselves. I think the media has a big role to play by toning down its fixation with youth, and giving those of us who are getting older – I’m 74 – a fairer crack of the whip. What’s wrong with a wrinkle or two, after all? Whatever happened to the idea of mentors, older people with a lot to offer society, particularly its young? Finally, I’ve learnt that dignity and respect is as much about attitudes as financial investment. The fact is that dignity should be the first thing hospitals and care homes think about, not the last. If I take one inspiring thought from my year as Dignity ambassador, it is this, given to me by a very experienced campaigner for old people: those charged with looking after the elderly should ask themselves not how can we improve their quality of care but what can we do to improve the quality of their life? [rc] www.dignityincare.org.uk © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010