Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The UK's treatment of pensioners is a right Royal mess

The Queen
The Queen

Before she entered hospital last Sunday, the Queen (86) ordered her aides not to "make a fuss". There was no ambulance for the monarch; instead, she arrived at the private King Edward VII hospital in London by car.

I am sure once she was there, however, the nurses and doctors did, indeed, make a fuss.

And I hope they did not because of her royalty, but because of her advanced age. Because we know the Queen's experience of hospital is not replicated for many pensioner admitted to NHS wards.

A report due out this month by the House of Lords committee on public service and democratic change will uncover the huge disadvantages older people experience in the NHS. Professor David Oliver, who recently left his post as the Government's elderly care tsar, told the committee that, in spite of accounting for so much spending in the health service, older patients were treated worse than younger ones with the same conditions.

A depressed person over the age of 65, for example, is a tenth as likely to see a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, than someone under that threshold age.

The committee will also point to a study by the Royal College of Surgeons last year which found that older patients were often denied the same surgery that would be given to younger ones.

The large proportion of patients who suffer the 300,000 falls in NHS hospitals every year are over 65, while many cases of dementia are only diagnosed once a patient is admitted to hospital.

It cannot be unconnected, then, that a major study published yesterday in The Lancet found that Britons are less healthy in their older years than pensioner in similarly industrialised countries.

In the UK, a person can expect 68.6 healthy years before succumbing to disability or disease. In Spain, it is 70.9 years, in Italy 70.2. Even Greece, for all its troubles, is also ahead of the UK.

Life expectancy in Britain overall is growing: a man aged 70 today can expect to live a further 17 years, a woman of the same age a further 19 years. Half of babies born after 2007 will live to be 103. This should be a cause for a celebration. But while we are getting older, for many of us these later years are spent being less healthy than senior citizens in other EU nations.

The Lancet report says the UK's comparatively poor health can be attributed to higher rates of smoking, drinking and obesity.

But can it be only the Mediterranean diet of sunshine, olive oil, tomatoes and fresh fish that keeps pensioner living healthier lives into their 70s and 80s? Or is it also the preferential treatment that societies in Mediterranean countries afford their elderly?

In Britain, instead of focusing our efforts on keeping a growing elderly population healthy, we seem to regard the over-65s as a drain on public resources.

In a society obsessed with youth and beauty, we turn away from the elderly almost as though we are afraid to face up to our own old age. After years of facing up to a social care funding crisis, the Government is finally starting to tackle this problem, but help is going to be slow and will not be enough for many families.

David Oliver, in his evidence to the Lords, said we should not characterise all older people as "hapless victims, who are ill", but celebrate their long life and support them in good health.

The Queen's apparently robust health and longevity should be applauded. But let us not ignore the nation's other pensioners.

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