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'We have to ensure that attitudes towards older people change'

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The issues around gender inequality have taken a much higher profile in recent months.

prof martin green

prof martin green

Large organisations have been exhorted to publish their gender pay gap and this has shown that, despite legislative changes and the move towards equality that we have seen building from the 1970s, there are still some significant inequalities across the system.

It is my view that one of the biggest challenges is to move to a system that is age-neutral and where ageism is seen to be as unacceptable as racism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination.

The challenge for the system is to stand against ageism at a time when it is endemic in society. It manifests itself in so many ways, but you only have to see the casual way that ageist remarks are thrown around to realise what a Herculean task we have in trying to eradicate ageist attitudes.

This is particularly true of health and social care services, which often see older people treated in a completely different way from other client groups.

Not only do we see vastly disproportionate funding, but there is also a paucity of ambition in some of the care plans for older people, as opposed to those for younger adults.

I did some analysis of domiciliary support plans for older people and compared them to those for younger people, and the contrasts in how they were treated were stark.

I found younger people’s plans – which talked about engaging with community activity, accessing leisure services and maintaining family relationships – and I found lots of older people’s plans that focused on the activities of daily living and only gave people 30 minutes to do quite complex and personal tasks. 

“I have yet to see children being described as bed blockers”

There is a wider problem for health and social care; the way in which the media perceived older people who are always seen as a problem.

I have yet to see children being described as bed blockers, though there are many of them occupying hospital beds inappropriately and the unit cost of their care can be significantly higher than the cost of delivering support to a person living with dementia. 

The Equalities and Human Rights Act, has the public-sector equalities duty, which is supposed to ensure that public sector organisations are in the vanguard of ensuring equality and eradicating discrimination.

If you look at some of the ways in which services are delivered by public bodies, you see that discrimination against older people is rife. The funding for younger people’s services in many local authorities outstrips the funding for older people’s care, even though there are significantly more older people needing care and support in that authority.

One of the major problems in trying to eradicate inequality is that the bodies set up to safeguard the public and ensure the delivery of a more fair and equal society are clearly ignoring ageism.

“If we are going to really challenge discrimination, we have to use the law as our backstop”

I am surprised that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is not taking cases on behalf of older people, which highlights the discrimination they suffer in care services.

If we are going to really challenge discrimination, we have to use the law as our backstop, but we have to ensure that attitudes towards older people change.

Whenever I hear an ageist remark, I always flip the categories of the Act, and ask myself what the response would be if I made that same comment about black people, gay people, disabled people or women.

I urge everyone to try it because it really brings into sharp focus the casual discrimination that exists and the challenges we have to eradicate it.

Professor Martin Green is chief executive, Care England

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Readers' comments (1)

  • At Southend hospital the Phillipino nurses address the elderly as 'sweet-pea', it is so degrading more so when every patient has their name on a board above their bed.

    It is lazy nursing, demoralising and very demeaning ... but at this hospital anything goes!

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