I must admit that, at the time, I laughed along with nearly everyone else present.

Now, in view of the recent shocks to our elderly care system, I do feel more than a twinge of guilt for giggling at remarks made at a recent major medical conference.

At the conference, doctors were told about the 'excessive bureaucracy' in our nursing home inspection system, that led to staff in one home complaining when inspectors suggested that elderly residents be given a weekly, non-alcoholic cocktail party.

Tee! hee! hee! Chuckle! etc. Political correctness gone mad yet again. What's that you say? Staff were also told meal menus should be displayed on walls even though (oh stop, my sides are splitting) most of the residents in the home had dementia and they couldn't read a thing?

And another thing heard at the conference. Some nursing home staff have been 'in tears' due to demands made by those nasty HIQA inspectors. Advice - how to bring a swift end to any debate in grown-up, mature radio phone-in show Ireland -  say someone is 'in tears' as a result of what you have said or done and let all rational argument fly out the window.

Let's get real here. If we are going to shed tears, let's shed them at the safety body's recent report alleging that unfortunate residents in a south Dublin nursing home were assaulted.

The allegations, if confirmed, conjure up an appalling vista for elderly care in this country.

Let's shed tears of gratitude for those brave people who came forward to HIQA to report alleged abuse at the Rostrevor nursing home, potentially putting their livelihoods at risk. The abuse allegations have been strongly denied by the owners.

Let's shed tears for that unfortunate elderly lady we saw in a Prime Time documentary last December being force-fed by a home 'care' worker employed by a private agency.

Let's shed tears for those old people and their families seeking a nursing home place as uncertainty continues on Fair Deal funding as the great and the good among us wring our hands as we ponder how we are going to manage this elderly care 'burden'... 'going forward', while we order another latte.

And for all those other brave whistleblowers who did what the State and its regulatory authorities failed to do in the past and exposed safety dangers in our health system.

Let's hope that the current legal whistleblowing system is strengthened.

Let's shed tears of relief that despite its flaws, we have a reasonably well-functioning inspection and regulatory system for nursing homes.

And finally, let's shed tears of despair at the prospect of any vulnerable older person having a hand raised to them in any care setting at any time.

It's easy to point the finger. But perhaps the attitudes of all of us leave much to be desired.

As we ask serious questions about the state of elderly care in Ireland we must also ask who is really to blame for all the current trouble.

Well, all of us really. I thought at the time that the tale - 'did you hear about the nursing home residents who had cocktail parties?' - was pretty damned hilarious when I heard it . Most of us would probably laugh at your average comedian making the predicament of simply being old the subject of humour.

For some reason, most of us seem to find activities associated with younger people - eg drinking, having sex, leading normal lives, enjoying yourself - quite risible when transposed to elderly people with obvious delusions of youthly grandeur.

But finding that type of thing funny doesn't mean you're 'ageist' does it? Oh no, not me. Well...

Maybe we wouldn't laugh so hard, particularly after the Rostrevor case, if it was implicitly suggested at a medical conference that regulatory systems should 'go easy' when inspecting a nursing home that one of your loved ones might be in at present.

We're touching here on something fairly uncomfortable. The fact that maybe we don't take older people, and how they are cared for, and how that care should be funded, and how they should be protected against abuses in that care, seriously enough.

Until the latest scandal, of course.

Richard Nixon was once asked why John F Kennedy was popular and he wasn't, and replied that when people saw JFK they saw what they wanted to be, but when they saw good old Tricky Dicky they saw who they really were.

The attitudes of the State may in some way be a reflection of all of us in all of our imperfections.

Hence the lack of proper protection for 'whistleblowers' who report abuses in elderly care and other healthcare settings.

Hence the culture in some healthcare institutions that puts 'the system' and the staff above the needs of the patient.

Hence the debate over whether the State and society can really afford the level of care our older citizens require when they become ill, weak and dependent.

Funny, you never hear that question put forward in relation to improving cancer care. Put crudely, no-one ever suggested we shouldn't set up centres of excellence because, well, some people with cancer are going to die anyway.

Yet governments and some individuals suddenly become actuaries when it comes to elderly care.

Again the cancer analogy - it's never suggested that public cancer patients attending centres of excellence should be asked to 'co-pay' for their care.

Recent governments have tried to take away free access to vital GP care for the elderly and have argued the legal toss till the cows came home over whether the State really has an obligation to subsidise or fully fund the cost of caring for older people.

But let's not just conveniently blame everything on recent Governments, although admittedly it's tempting.

During the Celtic Tiger era, would many of us have voted for a political party that suggested raising taxes to adequately fund elderly care or other aspects of healthcare that are currently in crisis?

And the regulatory system for nursing homes that we currently are thankful for was essentially a legal afterthought, thanks to whistleblowers. It wasn't because everyone decided from the get-go that everything, on the basis of natural justice and fairness, should on principle be regulated properly.

The current HIQA inspection system only came about as a result of abuse revelations in the Leas Cross scandal; and to a certain extent this system is still hampered by weak legal protection for whistleblowers.

To be fair to Mary Harney, HIQA was one of her innovations that has actually worked reasonably well.

As the fall-out from the Rostrevor nursing home controversy continues,as further nursing home closures are announced, and as Health Minister James Reilly tries to sort out the mess that is elderly care funding, perhaps it's time for some self-reflection about our real attitudes to older people.

We're all going to be old some day. Perhaps many of us are already but haven't really noticed it. But at some stage we will depend on people, institutions and the State to look after us properly and humanely. This should be a given rather than something that you might have to pray for.

And a note to anyone who might want to, heaven forbid, put me in a nursing home at some time in the hopefully distant future. I want to go into one with regular alcoholic cocktail parties. And I want to be handed a leather-bound menu each day, whether or not I can read it.

I would like to think that at that stage of my life I had earned some minor indulgences.

New perspective on elder abuse





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