Sunday, 16 October 2011

The tenuous link between sport and neglect.

So the 14 men of Wales lost by one point to the 15 men of France, after Allain Rolland sent off  Sam Warburton for a dangerous tackle - a decision which is a bit like the rugby equivalent of sending Gary Lineker off, such is Sam’s reputation for fair play. Mr Rolland is a referee who rarely offers any sort of apology for his on-field decisions, and I am sure that this time will be no different. Conspiracy theories will no doubt abound: Rolland hails from Ireland (the team Wales beat in the Quarter Finals) and his father is French. I would prefer not to blame the heritage but rather offer the individual time to reflect on the impact he has had. No matter, I may feel rotten now, but I shouldn’t like to be in his shoes next time he goes to Wales: I would advise him against ordering any food or drink in any Welsh-run establishment for the rest of his life - the ingredients may well veer off those stated on the menu.

Perhaps therein lies the only real gain from the whole debacle: Welsh solidarity often seems to rest on a sense of shared injustice. We can be heartened that we now have a real episode of sporting robbery to unite us. For too long our failures as a rugby playing nation have been entirely our own. Having just got off the ‘phone to my brother and my Mum (the proper Welsh person in the family) I can already feel the guilty satisfaction garnered from having something meaty to moan about. Of course, this does not compare to what it would be like to actually have got to the final, but in many ways, talking about failure is our daily bread, so being able to blame it on someone else is like Christmas come early for the chippy Welshman.

In the run up to this match, I felt unprepared for the concept of a truly gifted, performing Welsh side: we have spent so long talking about past achievements that it has become ingrained that such performances and successes can no longer be expected from current and future Welsh teams. What we have learned over the last few weeks is that high performance can be earned, and that the past does not necessarily indicate how the future will look.

And this brings me on to my main point for today: Wales losing a rugby match because of a cheating, biased referee is only a sporting event - it has resonance for many reasons, including collective identity and heritage, but playing and watching sport are pastimes, and they only reflect the real fabric of society, and never truly replace them. These matches sometimes feel so important that it can be easy to forget that they are not. One of the reasons that Wales have been playing so well is that they seem to get this: they recognise that playing sport is important for the national sense of well-being, but that the position in society of what they do is brought into sharp relief by miners dying in pit accidents, or mass unemployment back home. They see their performances in the World Cup as a salve for the real world going on back home, and this really shows.

How then should we react to the news that we continue to abuse and neglect our elderly patients in hospital? This is a theme that crops up with regularity, and it is the same issues every time. Ann Abrahams published the excellent report ‘Care and Compassion’ earlier on in the year, and who was surprised to find out this week that in many hospitals, the same issues are still there?

Radio 4 wheels on individuals to relate what happened to their vulnerable relative, and we shake our heads, wring our hands, and talk about staffing levels, attitudes to caring, the qualifications of nursing staff and health care assistants. We talk about how we need to do better, and yet I go to work every day and pretend it’s not happening on my patch,

And here’s the rub - I am prepared to get exercised about the questionable call of a well-meaning referee when I see it, but do I roll up my sleeves in the same way when I see the abuse and neglect of elderly patients. I happen to work on wards where the care my patients receive from nursing staff is superb, but I still see patients admitted to hospital bearing the scars of sub-standard care every week. We always initiate the relevant reviews and safe guards, but it is my perception that neglect particularly of the elderly is so endemic, that we are less sensitive to it.  

Mistreatment of the elderly has relevance to me because I work with them; for others, the conversation strikes a chord because of their experiences with their own relatives. What we are lacking is for the elderly to have relevance in the wider society, and for them to be integrated in to the daily workings of their communities. Many elderly folk do not have the physical robustness they used to have, but they have experience, acquired emotional intelligence, and a perspective on life for which there is no short cut. The reality for many pensioners is social isolation and isolation.

The treatment that we afford them in hospital is a function of this bigger picture. The treatment that our elderly receive when they are ill is the best that our society has decided they deserve. We should be careful of criticising the standards of service that are offered to them by statutory services that are paid for by a society that clearly feels that the elderly are not that important.

The solution to their mistreatment in hospital lies partly in addressing staff training and attitudes, but it also lies in addressing societal attitudes. I fear that our elders will continue to experience poor standards of care until we as a society value them, both for what they have done in the past, and for what they continue to offer.

So next time you read a story about the poor treatment of the elderly in hospital, as yourself whether you individually contribute to the solution, or whether you are part of the problem.

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