The continuing reports in the press expressing concern about the quality of care for elderly people in care homes and the National Health Service continue. Recently the Patients Association and Care Quality Commission have both recently provided detailed studies of what they describe as "shocking" levels of care in the NHS. Apparently problems are compounded for the elderly because of shortages of nursing staff and the prevalence of institutionalised ageism.
A report by the Commission on Dignity in Care whose message was that, "Being compassionate should be as important as being clever when it comes to the recruitment of staff." This was one of the recommendations made by the commission for improving dignity in care for older people in hospitals and care homes in England. They said that it has become clear that many elderly people are being seriously let down because of poor standards of care.
Last year, February, 2011, a report on the plight of the elderly was published by Ann Abraham the health service ombudsman. A Guardian caption on the publication of this report read, "Some elderly patients were given no help to eat or left in urine soaked clothes, according to the health service ombudsman". Ann Abraham's report was a catalogue of neglect and cruelty and highlighted examples, 10 cases, where elderly people were not treated with either, care, dignity, or respect as they came towards the end of their lives.
Words and phrases introduced into this debate include 'emotional intelligence', and 'empathy' as well as 'compassion'. There is a power, I think in these words because the caring services cannot operate properly without a preponderance of such qualities. Yet compassion (or can we go a step further and say love?) seems to be such a threat to the status quo. One of the things we rarely if ever hear politicians talking about is love and what is love if it's not the ability to understand, to put oneself in the other person shoes, to care deeply about the fate and well-being of others. What is love if it's not a desire to seek conciliation to bring peace and harmony and to alleviate suffering in the world? Humility is an aspect of a love that requires us to put others before ourselves and want what is right for everyone no matter who they may be.
There is this contradiction that we live with, that says we don't want to die young and yet we don't want to get old even though we know we have to die. So if we are lucky enough we may have a long and full life and will therefore get old. This is one of the challenges we all must face. In general our growing old and our inevitable death will demand an acceptance that the world continues to change and that we cannot for ever be part of it. Our final journey, death, will be a letting go of everything that we have known and loved on this earth.
In the nursing homes and care homes for the elderly there is naturally a more explicit recognition of this inevitability. In these care homes, there exists a tremendous opportunity for meaningful ministry, to share time with its residents and to be with them in the final phase of their lives. In care homes for the elderly there is a hunger for visitors, for company and for spiritual solace. At this stage in their lives many older people crave that company, a friendly face, a sympathetic ear and just a few encouraging words. It's not much to ask but it can make a big difference. In one care home, a woman, demented and confused, alone in her room in the hours of darkness, was heard crying out to God and praying, "O God, I am so alone, I don't know where I am, I don't know how I got here, but I'm so lonely, please send somebody to see me!"
The first verses of Psalm 22 read:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
The woman's words and the words from the Psalm speak pitifully of a profound sense of abandonment, of pain and desolation. It seems that the secular world has forgotten largely that "man cannot live by bread alone." Where there is a perceived need for ministry it should be offered. Simply spending time with the elderly is a gift that the Church should provide; the gift of human contact and spiritual solace.