Less Than Human

I watched the girl on the television speak with such passion of her father, an elderly man, who had been broken after a few weeks in hospital.

I heard her frustration and loss. I felt her anguish.  She spoke to me.

And I remembered how quickly it happened.

As a Nurse, I had seen appalling examples of the treatment of older people by staff.

There was one very sweet old lady, who had come in to give her daughter a break from caring, and allow her a holiday. The daughter took a great deal of time to explain to the ward staff her Mum’s habits, her likes and dislikes, and what made her happy. I was impressed at the work she had done – the ground she had covered. I, apparently, was in the minority.

Such thoroughness and well-intentioned information had resulted in real hostility. The minute the daughter left the Ward, one disgruntled Nurse commented:
“Well! She’ll not get treated like that here! Who does she think she is ….Royalty?”

This attitude was contagious.

I attempted frequently to intercede on the patient’s behalf, but nothing I could say made any difference. This lady’s daughter was going on holiday: if she was swanning off, her mother would get the bare minimum.

I repeatedly found this old lady in terrible distress and still lying in her own urine at 1 p.m. when I arrived for my late shift. Although all the other patients were up and dressed, she was left unattended. She was distraught, and beside herself at her lost dignity. She told me that she had repeatedly called for help, but nobody had answered. I reported it to the Ward Sister, (guaranteed to make me unpopular) but the problem was waved away. This lady was a short term patient, of no consequence.

I will never forget what she endured, or my repeated attempts to penetrate the wilful blindness of the staff . The staff maintained that “SHE” was a boarder and not a “regular” and therefore could not expect the same attention: the fact that they were treating her as less than human was ignored.

When her daughter returned, hopeful and happy, her world crashed around her in seconds. She could see the tremendous change in her mother in just two weeks. She had to be told about the sores which her mother had developed. As I watched the benefits of her holiday ebb away, to be replaced by absolute fury, I decided that I did not want to give any more time to a profession which would not listen: which would countenance the cruellest treatment, because the staff could not be criticised.

When she left with her mother, her anger had turned to despair.

“If I can’t trust you to look after her, I will never get a holiday again.”

This was not nursing, as I knew it. The experience made me realise, sadly, that outsider/family help is frequently required to keep the patient safe.

©Linda Jane McLean


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