Ever since I moved down here, I have seen walking around the village, through the lanes, and, on occasions, along the busy highways, a tall, elderly gentleman, who wore the unmistakable look of the dementia sufferer. But I have not seen him for a few weeks.
The update in the parish news told us that he had recently been admitted to hospital, and subsequently discharged to a care home. However, the message from his wife, was one of gratitude to the locals. She was thankful for the care, consideration and kindness they had shown to him when he went on his walks. He would spend many hours every day strolling outside. It seemed to be the one thing that kept him connected to the past, that was, for him, slipping out of memory. Locals would acknowledge him, talk to him, and when he wandered somewhere dangerous, they would bring him home, or alert her to where he had gone.
His wife was grateful for the support that her neighbours had shown him and her, and for their indulgence. She could trust that wherever he went, he would be safe, and that people were looking out for him. She was thankful that with community support, they were able to stay together for as long as they did. Importantly, he was treated as a member of the community, and not just an elderly man with dementia.
I was touched by her ability to see the positives in his life as the fog of dementia descended. And I was touched by the realisation that she was talking about my community, about the people I see every day. I am relieved to discover that a common decency is alive and well in the place we live. It makes it feel like a good place to be.
There is something in this story for all of us, and to me, it talked openly about something I have been feeling for some time.
As I grapple with the challenges of caring for an ageing, and ever frailer community of patients, I increasingly feel that health and social care services can ever only be part of the solution. On their own, healthcare professionals can make a huge difference, but they cannot change the game. That is up to all of us.
Do we value the elderly? Do we empathise with them? Do we ever imagine what it might be like to when we age, and wane? I seem to recall my Dad once telling me, with the fervour of the first generation immigrant, that our health service, is the pinnacle of civilisation. I may have made this up, but it seems like the kind of thing he might say. I imagine the system was a little more limited where he grew up in Nairobi. For years, I agreed with him (a rare enough occurrence), but now I am beginning to wonder.
The NHS is a marker of a strong society when compared to what came before; but now it has been in place for over 60 years, perhaps we have started to rest on our laurels. What is the next marker of progress? If the NHS was a sign of a country keen to take care of its most vulnerable, then perhaps the time has come to take the next step.
Sometimes I wonder if we are up to it, but then I read stories in the parish paper that give me some hope. Can there be anything more rewarding than for a society to make the choice to protect better its most needy members?
Of course, the challenge is to decide what the response looks like. Perhaps, the key is not define the answer, but to define the challenge. Perhaps we could set the goal that no elderly person should go an entire day without social contact.
Of course, there is no imperative in all of this. That is perhaps what makes it such a compelling choice. We could, of course, allow our elders to continue to live lonely, marginalised lives. Or we could make the choice to make them part of the routine of our community living.
I'll let you know when I've had some ideas about how to make this a reality, but in the meantime, I would welcome any help I can get.