Compassion ‘as important’ as brains in elderly care

Sometimes, simple human contact can be a surprisingly powerful medicine © Getty Images

A major report from charities and the NHS has called for an overhaul in care for the elderly. At the heart of the proposed reforms: treating the aged less like patients and more like people.

Mohandas Gandhi once said that ‘a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.’ If that rule is true, Great Britain may be misnamed. Just over a year ago, an investigation by an NHS watchdog revealed that the UK’s health service was habitually mistreating vulnerable older patients, ignoring basic needs – often with disastrous consequences.

Now, a new report has laid out 48 recommendations on how to make sure such neglect never happens again. Put together by representatives from the NHS and leading charity Age UK, the proposals aim to deliver a ‘comprehensive overhaul’ of elderly care.

At the heart of the reforms? Not more supervision or stricter medical targets, but a ‘major cultural shift’ in the way older patients are treated in hospitals and care homes. Patronising terms like ‘old dear’ are to be banned. Engagement with friends and relatives will be encouraged. Carers will be charged with preserving not only patients’ health, but also their dignity.

Carers are sometimes guilty of ‘focusing on the task rather than focusing on the person in front of them,’ the report suggested. Sometimes, for example, carers spoon-feed patients who could have been allowed to feed themselves. In other cases, elderly patients are forbidden from doing simple but empowering things like choosing their own clothes.

A reformed system, the report recommends, would make sure that old people were ‘full and active participants’ rather than ‘passive recipients of care.’

It is this focus on the human side of elderly care that lies behind the report’s most headline-grabbing suggestion: that aspiring health workers should be required to demonstrate more than just intelligence and medical know-how to get into the profession. In future, the recommendation goes, carers will have to show their talent for kindness and compassion too.

Hearts versus heads

This emphasis on emotions does not always come naturally in the medical world. After all, some doctors point out, medicine must always be based on strong science, or it risks doing more harm than good. It takes hard-headed decision-making and logical thought to keep the human body in working order.

Medicine should be about more than just the body, reformers reply. After all, it is not just the length of a person’s life that matters, but how that life is lived. Better, they say, to die with dignity than to endure a miserable decline sustained by an efficient but unfeeling regime of hospital care. Good medicine, the thinking goes, should be about the human body, but also the human soul.

You Decide

  1. How much does ‘dignity’ matter to you?
  2. If you had to chose, would you want to be looked after by a rude but brilliant doctor or a kind-hearted but inexpert nurse?


  1. Gandhi said ‘a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.’ Was he right? Come up with your own measure for a nation’s greatness.
  2. Which is more important in life, intelligence or compassion? Divide the class into two groups. One group should give a presentation arguing in favour of intelligence, the other in favour of compassion. Which side’s arguments are stronger?

Some People Say...

“Mistreating the elderly is the worst possible crime.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve got a few years to go before I have to start worrying about this sort of thing!
Perhaps – but everyone gets there in the end. Moreover, today’s young people could end up spending much more time than their parents or grandparents being looked after by hospitals or carers.
Why’s that?
Really it is because medicine has become so much more effective. Diseases that used to kill lots of people at relatively young ages like 60 or 70 are now much more curable. Life expectancy has been shooting up.
Good news!
Perhaps. A teenager today stands a decent chance of living to be 90 or 100 – but not all of those years will be healthy. More and more people are spending the last years, or even decades, of life totally dependent on medical care.

Word Watch

Mohandas Gandhi
The spiritual leader of India’s independence movement during the early 20th Century, Mohandas (later known as ‘Mahatma’) Gandhi was famous for his philosophy of non-violent resistance. He was assassinated by a religious fanatic in 1948.
Great Britain
Strictly speaking, Great Britain is not the name of a nation. It simply describes the biggest island of the British Isles (which include places like Ireland, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man). The proper name of the nation is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
To patronise someone is to belittle or demean that person by ‘talking down’ to them as if they were inferior to you. Not all patronising language is used deliberately or with ill intent.
More harm than good
By some estimates, a doctor was statistically more likely to kill you than to cure you until as late as the 1930s. Among the most notorious examples of mistaken treatment was bloodletting. Doctors were convinced that fevers could be cured by taking out some of the victim’s blood. Unsurprisingly, this just made them less able to resist the disease.


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