A Catalogue Of Abuse: Report Demands Law To Protect Elderly In Hospitals And Care Homes

Vulnerable elderly people are being subjected to neglect, abuse, discrimination and ill-treatment in the hospitals and care homes that should be looking after them, according to a report published today by a parliamentary committee.

{mosimage}The study by the joint committee on human rights warns that many older people are facing maltreatment ranging from physical neglect so severe they are left lying in their own faeces or urine to malnutrition and dehydration through lack of help with eating.

Lack of dignity, especially for personal care needs, inappropriate medication designed more to subdue patients than treat them, and over-hasty discharge from hospital are also causing suffering for many older people, the MPs and peers conclude.

The report, the most high-level to date to highlight disturbing levels of neglect and abuse of the elderly in Britain, argues that the law should be strengthened to compel hospitals and care homes to protect the human rights of older people in their care.

The committee says that “an entire culture change” is needed to ensure that patients and staff who work with them are aware of their basic human rights. While there have been some recent signs of progress in policy and guidance, the rhetoric has not translated into practice on the ground, the report concludes.

It criticises the Department of Health and Ministry of Justice for failing to give leadership and guidance to providers of health and residential care. While overt age discrimination has reduced in hospitals and care homes, it still persists “in more subtle and indirect ways than in the past”, says the report, which also criticises government moves to allow organisations to investigate complaints against them themselves.

The committee chairman, Andrew Dismore, said: “Neglect and ill-treatment of the elderly is a severe abuse of human rights. It is a serious betrayal of trust by the very people upon whom older people depend for care.” Charities strongly backed the study, branding the treatment of elderly people in some hospitals and care homes scandalous and shameful.

Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, said: “It is scandalous that there is ignorance and even blatant disregard of human rights, seven years after the Human Rights Act first came into force.

“This hard-hitting report gets to the heart of many of the problems older people encounter.

“The dignity, needs and wants of older people must be put at the centre of their care, and Human Rights are the perfect vehicle to ensure this and to deliver quality care services.”

Kate Jopling, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said the report had “lifted the lid on the shameful treatment of our older citizens by health and care services.” The committee was right to call for new legal protections for older people.

Evidence given to the committee by an array of charities and support groups revealed distressing examples of abuse. Age Concern estimates that some half a million older people are subject to some form of abuse at any one time in Britain.

The report points to other examples of neglect such as a failure to take time to ensure older people have time to feed themselves, or are given help with feeding – a problem Age Concern says affects 60% of older people in hospital and can lead to malnutrition or dehydration.

The MPs and peers also call on the government to address concerns about the rapid discharge of patients from hospital to meet government targets, even when a suitable placement has not been found for them.

The committee findings stress that many older people receive very high quality care in hospitals and residential care homes, but note that by last year, more than three years after national minimum standards for privacy and dignity were introduced, just over one fifth of care homes were still failing to meet them.

The health watchdog, the Healthcare Commission, said healthcare providers needed to do more to ensure older people’s rights were protected while in hospital.

The health minister, Ivan Lewis, said: “The government regards abuse of vulnerable and older people as unacceptable in all its forms and is determined to root it out. Everyone who lives in a care home or is being treated in hospital has a right to feel safe and expect their dignity to be respected.

“We have already taken positive action to ensure that dignity is at the heart of the NHS and social care system. Today we will be announcing the success of the dignity in care campaign in raising awareness and driving forward improvements in the way in which older people are treated every day.”

The government intended to address the anomaly that the Human Rights Act did not apply to publicly-funded residents of private care homes, only to those living in local authority care homes, he added.

The victims

Examples of abuse and mistreatment cited in evidence to the committee:

· “She grew very thin and it was obvious to visitors that, although she had always had an excellent appetite, she found great difficulty in feeding herself. Visitors would have been only too willing to help but were discouraged from staying during meal times. She appeared to be slowly starving to death.”

· “I went to visit my husband on the first day and he is a very private person, he doesn’t like anything to embarrass him, and when I went in he was almost in tears which is not like my husband. He said ‘please, please go and get a bottle I am nearly wetting myself’. I rushed out, I got a bottle and I said to him ‘well, why didn’t you just ring the nurse?’ in my innocence.”

· “For an hour and a half I’ve been asking for a bottle. Well, when I went out and told the nurse she said ‘Oh don’t worry – we would have changed the sheets’. Now his dignity at that stage would have gone out of the window – there was no dignity.”

· “An 80-year-old woman was seriously sexually assaulted by another resident in 2004. It was reported in the log book but no action taken. It was only reported to the resident’s daughter in July 2005. She reported the matter to the police.”