Belfast Telegraph

Why Sir Cliff isn't only one afraid of getting older

By Lindy McDowell

Some time back in this column I made a light-hearted, mildly critical comment about Sir Cliff Richard.

And, wow, did that open the floodgates! Suffused with indignation on his behalf, fans of His Cliffness inundated me with complaints. One woman even cornered me at a social function, backing me up against the wall as she demanded an apology for the perceived slight.

So you will understand why, when I read this week about how the singer has made a deal with his sister to "not let it go on too long" should either develop dementia, my immediate thought was - it would be a brave soul who'd pull the plug on Cliff Richard.

It is an entirely serious point he's making, though.

And a brave one, too.

Sir Cliff's 87-year-old mother died after suffering from Alzheimer's for over 10 years. He and his sisters watched her long, slow, relentless decline.

"Dementia does not take your life," he observes, "but it takes it away from you. You don't have a life. It just stops you living."

At first, like many families, the singer and his sisters were able to care for their mother themselves; she lived with his youngest sister Joan. Eventually though, as her condition worsened, she had to be admitted to the specialist care of a nursing home.

The family's is far from a unique story.

A report just this week reveals that almost one in every two adults here in Northern Ireland feels their lives has been touched by dementia, either through being related to someone who suffered, or suffers, from the disease or through knowing them.

To add to the bleak picture we've all read that shocking report from the Quality Care Commission citing cases in both hospitals and care homes where elderly, vulnerable and confused people have been left deprived of food and drink because care staff have been otherwise preoccupied.

We read of doctors having to prescribe water to patients to ensure that they are given a drink and do not become dehydrated.

We've seen the picture of that strange bib proposed for nurses in one hospital advising patients not to speak to them while they are dispensing drugs.

We've read the reports of elderly patients suffering from malnutrition. In NHS hospitals. In the 21st century.

In fairness, the Quality Care Commission itself stresses that these cases are still the exception. That nursing staff and care home staff are, in general, as deeply committed, caring and professional as ever.

But there is a problem and we need to tackle it and work out why in the words of health service mandarin-speak some hospitals and care homes are failing to deliver best practice.

That sort of impersonal jargon might actually hold the key. For the system has lost sight of the whole point of nursing when it becomes more about "delivering targets" than about providing care.

God help the poor squeezed staff being run off their feet as they try to meet management demands.

But when we reach the point where nurses are failing to spot that elderly woman who hasn't touched food or even had a sip of water all day, then frankly, God help us all.

Still on Sir Cliff and in the same interview he equally bravely asserts: "I don't see why gay people shouldn't be married."

I'm with him on that. I also can't see why two gay Church of Ireland clerics can't be married (or in a civil partnership). I'd have thought some in the church would welcome such loving commitment - instead of nitpicking the Bible for vague quotes which they interpret to frown upon gay union in particular and homosexuality in general.

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