We ought to be allowed to grow old without being made to feel guilty about it. I’m afflicted with several infirmities just now, in joints, eyes, ears, teeth, memory, and whatever is supposed to control my sleeping. My doctor tells me these are ‘just signs of old age’. ‘But my partner is about the same age’, I protest, ‘and has none of these afflictions’. ‘That’s because she’s a woman,’ he replies; ‘and women age more slowly than men. It also means you’ll die before her.’ I feel my doctor lacks something in the bedside manner department; but in fact I appreciate his directness and honesty. (He’s a great diagnostician.) And ‘just old age’ makes me feel better about my aches and pains. They’re not my responsibility. I can live (and die) with that.
For others who are closer to me, however, my minor infirmities are all my fault. They’re because I eat badly, am lazy, and take too little exercise. So I need to embark on a programme of eating nothing but greens and really hard jogging. I doubt it. (Jogging isn’t going to be very good for my arthritis.) But really, the ‘programme’ is a way of shifting the burden of suffering on to my own shoulders. I prefer my doctor’s diagnosis. Ageing is ‘natural’.
But then along comes the Government, blaming the current problems of the NHS on ‘people living longer’: in other words, on the likes of me. Because we’re older, we need more care. We’re blocking the hospitals, impoverishing them with our demand for new hips and incontinence pants, and – of course – not paying for it any more through our taxes. We’re just burdens. Conscious of this, I’m loathe to visit my doctor any more. I feel I’m taking up time and expertise that would far better be used on younger, still productive members of society.
I’m also afraid that my fears of an ache or a pain being symptomatic of something really bad – cancer, say, or heart problems – will be dismissed as ‘hypochondria’. In other words, I have an irrational fear that I’m hypochondriacal about being a hypochondriac. (Is there a special word for that?) So I just soldier on; suffering quite happily – I don’t complain, and it gets me out of doing certain things; and reconciling myself to my ultimate fate. Later this week I’m part of a test at the famed Karolinska Hospital covering all 75-76-year olds in the Stockholm region to discover early and hidden symptoms of incipient heart failure. I’m quite looking forward to that. It should reassure me, without my having to ask for the test, which might have made me appear hypochondriacal.
But my general point is this. What has the NHS come to, that it deters its most vulnerable patients from seeking the advice they are entitled to, in case they – and they in particular – are overloading it? As an oldie, I don’t feel safe in Britain any more.
I tried to get a doctor’s appointment a while back – I was diagnosed with (osteo-)arthritis a few years ago, and for a while this summer I was worried about the way it seemed to be getting worse. I was on hold for ten minutes; when I’d called before the line had often been engaged, admittedly, but at least that way the caller doesn’t get charged. When somebody did answer, it was a different voice, with a different manner, from the receptionists I was used to – younger, more superficially ‘pleasant’ and cheerful. Ah, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible to get me an appointment any time in the next week; maybe the week after that, although… Perhaps my best option would be to call again, one day the following week, and see if they could fit me in at the end of the day? Naturally I left it – it didn’t seem worth the hassle, given that I was still walking and talking and wasn’t in constant or agonising pain. Thinking about it now, I’m almost certain that I was being ‘triaged’ – and if I’d talked up my symptoms a bit more, and maybe added the odd stifled groan, an appointment within seven days would have been available after all.
What kind of healthcare system is it where frontline staff are trained and scripted to repel potential patients?
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