Anita Ruckledge MBE: Our society has lost its heart and compassion for the elderly and vulnerable

Senior Sister Anita Ruckledge with the Forget Me Not Flower.'The quality of care for dementia patients is set to improve with the help of a small 'blue flower.'The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust's Forget-Me-Not scheme aims to provide ''better services for people with the condition at its hospitals in Pinderfields, Pontefract and Dewsbury and reassure their loved ones that they are receiving the best possible care.
Senior Sister Anita Ruckledge with the Forget Me Not Flower.'The quality of care for dementia patients is set to improve with the help of a small 'blue flower.'The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust's Forget-Me-Not scheme aims to provide ''better services for people with the condition at its hospitals in Pinderfields, Pontefract and Dewsbury and reassure their loved ones that they are receiving the best possible care.
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LIKE many of our healthcare colleagues across the country, The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust has a post-Christmas problem: What do we do with the left-over presents donated to our young patients?

In December, the generosity of the Yorkshire public was so overwhelming – one group gave us 400 presents – that one of our A&E staff joked: “We will still be giving these gifts away to kids at Easter!”

Staying in hospital can be a traumatic experience for any child. And so the quality toys and clothes, funds to take young people on residential trips, not to mention the time invested by local clubs, celebrities and theatre groups in visiting sick children is always appreciated. For the child concerned and their family, it must be re-assuring to know that society really values you.

So why can’t we do the same for older people?

While the holiday season brought everyone from supermarkets to sporting superstars to our paediatric wards, just one campaign – the Royal Voluntary Service – donated presents to our older patients.

It has often been said that you can judge a country by the way it treats its elderly and the latest statistics from organisations such as Age UK paint a pretty grim picture of Britain.

It alarms me that two-fifths of older people in this country say that the television is their main form of company and that a tenth of our senior citizens suffer what they describe as “intense loneliness.”

And, frankly, I was horrified when I read recently that 42 per cent of the public think that maintaining contact with a loved one with dementia is “pointless” when they no longer recognise friends and family.

We have created a sliding scale of vulnerability which deems pensioners less worthy of our compassion than children when in fact, their needs are often greater. Wouldn’t it be great if we had greater equality?

Imagine if you will, Mrs Jones, a wife, mother and grandmother – though modern life has meant that her family has now dispersed to different parts of the world.

Mrs Jones is proud, strong and independent but she has vascular dementia and because loneliness increases anxiety and even affects her blood pressure, we are worried about her. A recent fall means she is hospitalised and she hasn’t been eating.

Our staff do all they can to engage with her as well as treat her, but she has no visitors. While her memory and perception, speech and cognition may be deteriorating, her emotions are intact. I will leave you to imagine how she feels...

The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust has just begun a Befrienders Scheme which, as the name suggests, encourages volunteers to sit and chat with patients who rarely, if ever, receive visitors. They are also trained to signpost those patients to services who could help them after they leave hospital.

A few hours of commitment and the opportunity to bring back a sense of worth and purpose to Mrs Jones. I wonder how many of you will take up that challenge to become a volunteer and help a fellow human being feel less isolated?

If she were fortunate to have loved ones nearby, Mrs Jones would face another prejudice whilst in many hospitals. Unlike the vulnerable children on the ward whose parents can be at their side, her family would not be able to stay with her overnight at the hospital – even at times of crisis.

Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield is the first in the UK to offer that service and our new family support rooms designed to resemble home, not hospital, have been greatly appreciated by patients and visitors.

Thanks to the relatively small sum it took to buy a CD player, one of those families were able to play the opera he so loved to their father as his life ended– with decency, dignity and respect.

A few pounds to buy small comfort items that bring pleasure. The donation of a few clothes to give to the vulnerable. A few hours of your time to listen and chat to someone in need of comfort. That is all it takes, and I bet that wouldn’t be too much to ask if I said it were for a poorly child?

I know we often complain that we do not want to be treated like children but I bet when we are older, infirm and vulnerable we will welcome the love, respect and company that society affords to kids.

If we are to receive that, then we had better start showing those children that compassion is a gift that should be a given to more than just the young.

Anita Ruckledge MBE is the Dementia Lead Nurse at The Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust which manages Dewsbury and District, Pontefract and Pinderfields (Wakefield) hospitals.