Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The trouble with old people (1)

This is the title of a strand of TV documentaries showing on Channel 4 this week, which kicked off on Monday with a programme by Tony Robinson called “Me and my Mum”. Channel 4 describes the programme as “an intensely personal look at the plight of Britain's elderly in a film about his 89-year old mum, Phyllis, who suffers from dementia and lives in a care home.” Tony himself says: "I'm angry at the way old people are treated in this country. I feel frustrated that no one ever talks about it.”

I found this a very courageous film, in which Tony looked at the reality of the decisions which have to be made when our parents can no longer live independently, and revealed his own doubts about whether he made the right decision for his mum. He talked about it with his son and daughter, and with others who have faced the same problem, and admitted to feeling guilty because he does not feel able to look after his mum at home. At the same time he pointed out that we should not feel guilty that we have such feelings, as they are common to so many of us.

One of the questions which came up was whether we should lie to our old people about whether they are going to get well again and be able to go home. One family had decided that it was kinder to lie, but their elderly father clearly suspected he was being ‘dumped’ in a care home, and he died within a few days of being moved there.

My own choice would be for the truth, for it may be possible to use the truth in a positive way, while lies, it seems to me, are more likely to create suspicion than to reassure. I remember too that my own mother chose not to let my father know that he was dying, but felt deeply deprived herself by not being able to share her last times with him in a fully open manner.

One of the conclusions reached by Tony Robinson was that we give a low priority to human happiness in our care for the elderly. “When people get old and doddery they can’t stand up for themselves any more” he said, “so they stop complaining and we stop listening. Do we try to make full and happy lives for our old people, or only to manage the end of their lives efficiently?” he asked. A good prompt there for all of us, as we try to make the difficult decisions.

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