MOST of us prefer not to think about ageing.
Nor do we like to be reminded that one day, even the fittest and sharpest of us may become frail and confused. But greater longevity means that a growing proportion of the population is affected by Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. For the National Health Service, the challenge is to ensure that facilities are designed to cater for these most vulnerable of patients.
Distressingly, it appears that in hospitals across Scotland, elderly people are being let down by services that are failing to meet their complex needs.
As we reveal today, a report by Greenock MSP Duncan McNeil, convener of the Scottish Government's health committee, has found inconsistencies and shortcomings which put patients at risk through poor nutrition, inadequate care plans or simply failing to treat them with dignity and respect.
McNeil stresses that there is much to be praised in health service staff's interactions with patients. But there is also plenty of cause for concern.
In many hospitals, inadequate assessment procedures mean staff may be unaware that a patient on their ward has dementia. The result may be frightened elderly people who are denied the specialist help they need to cope with their unfamiliar surroundings.
There are reports of staff talking over patients ("she needs her toenails cut") or calling them by the wrong name. One relative complained of visiting their father, only to find him sitting in an unscreened, urine-soaked bed.
No patient deserves to be humiliated in such a way, and the Scottish Government must ensure systems are put in place in the NHS to ensure that high standards of care are met.
Valuable research has been conducted into helping confused people to negotiate the unfamiliar territory of a hospital ward. Colour-coded routes to the toilet are one simple example. Much can also be done to help prepare people with dementia for life in their own homes, once discharged from hospital.
It is true that budget cuts are placing health staff under increasing pressure, that the growing burden of age-related illness will stretch the NHS still further, and that meeting the complex needs of patients with dementia is expensive. But if we fail to do so, the outcome is obvious: they will get sicker, frailer and still more confused. Meanwhile, the costs to the NHS rise exponentially, and, if not addressed, the future – for all of us – looks very bleak indeed.
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