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The rights of the elderly

Date:18 JAN 2010

Article by Penny Booth

It's mid-January, 2010. It's cold outside (it's winter, this is the UK, what do we expect?) but the snow is going away, leaving the slush at the roadside, late collecting dustbin men and the weather forecast from the BBC threatening more sleet. Last week, an elderly couple were found dead in their home. They are thought to have frozen to death. It is suspected that the husband, who was his wife's carer, possibly died first, leaving his wheelchair-bound wife to starve to death. Who knows what went through his mind as he died? Who knows what went through hers as she watched him, and then realised that the chances of help coming for her were fast diminishing?

As I write, I feel colder than I did before. I imagine its physical centre is on the back of my neck and it comes from the realisation of the sheer horror that being alone created for those two elderly individuals. I imagine you feel the same, for I don't think my reactions are anything different to anyone else.

Newspapers have mentioned the deaths a few times in the last week. There will be a serious case review, there may yet be a full inquest into the deaths even though the post-mortem currently reveals that the couple died of natural causes. The comment in The Times on Wednesday 13 January was to the point. Basically, if the bodies found had been of two babies there would have been an outcry, an enquiry, plastered over the front of newspapers and the first ten minutes of every national news bulletin - possibly for more than a day. We expect the elderly to die, but not healthy babies - right? Politicians have made much of ensuring children have a good start to life - the earlier impact the better. The media have made much of publicising failures to ensure the weak are looked after - so why not the elderly?

Not all the elderly have index-linked pensions, Saga holidays, a depository for the mortgage papers they collected years ago, and happy smiling family faces sending letters and making phone calls every week, classes in 'internet for the seniors', or family members visiting periodically. Many have little more than the basic state pension, no relatives visiting, no prospect of anything other than the same daily round of struggle - often alone - and little more than the prospect of enforced residential care (if they make it that far) in a few pitiable years.

We have neglected the elderly in our society. We make provision for baby care, a 'sure start' for toddlers, we promise 'education, education, education', and other sexy-sounding sound-bite grips - more of which we can expect in the run-up to a general election. The elderly are part of the family, that is why we must look at the whole of the family, or the family 'holistically', to improve our chances of its survival as a worthwhile entity. We have to be able to ensure that we balance the rights of the elderly to independent living within the limits set by health and retained capabilities with the provision of sufficient services to ensure that the decision that a couple who froze in their own home, lacking care and in sheer horror did not 'die of natural causes'. There was little 'natural' in it.

So, politicians and pundits, what are you going to promise this time to ensure we can all expect a decent end (as Alice Thompson points out in her article 'Freeze out the elderly: is this official policy', The Times at p 27, Wednesday 13 January 2010), - and not just a good start?

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.