Older people

For the want of a nail

Lisa oval

I’m at that age where my contemporaries are gradually losing their ageing parents. Plus doing all they can to help the ones who are left to cope with the indignities of living longer than our society seems to be set up for.

We are all born. And we all die. And people haven’t suddenly started to live longer. It’s been happening for years. And yet we seem to have devised our health care system as though none if this were the case.

As if there really were such a thing as saving lives.

There isn’t. All health care folk can do is help to prolong a person’s life, hopefully until that person feels they have lived a full one. And in doing so, take account of their needs and wishes. About how they want to live and also how they want to die. In the NHS we aren’t always very good at the first. And we are often very bad at the second.

There’s something very odd about the NHS. It’s called the National Health Service. And yet the majority of NHS time, attention and money is spent on hospitals. So much so that services that used to be called community health services were recently re-named ” Out of Hospital Care”. This may not seem important.  But it really is. And this is why.

Many years ago when I was a student nurse, I spent three months at what was then called a geriatric hospital. I remember an elderly lady who had suffered a stroke. Her face was turned literally and metaphorically to the wall. When I left the ward for my next placement, it was assumed she would soon die. Then a few weeks later, I had the opportunity to accompany the Health Visitor for the Elderly on her rounds. And in a tiny Cambridgeshire cottage, who should hobble to the door, all smiles, to let us in and offer to make us a cup of tea while her cat snoozed on the sunny window sill, than that lady?  And I suddenly realised that people live in homes not hospitals, and that being in hospital for even a day longer than is necessary diminishes people. My lady managed to escape. But these days, not many are so lucky.

If you wanted to devise a system that made sure that most elderly people die in their least preferred but also the most expensive possible place, i.e. hospital, it would be our NHS and the services that supposedly support it.

Local authorities have been starved of cash. And now hardly anyone except the most profoundly disabled gets any help at home with what is called social care, but includes essentials like eating, drinking, going to the toilet and having a wash. Organising private home care is in many instances a nightmare and a lottery. Simple adaptations to stop old people from falling down at home such as stair rails, bath handles and toilet grab rails are impossible to come by unless you have the money to pay for them and someone who will arrange for the work to be done. Such jobs may seem simple. But they can overwhelm an older person.

And yet as Atul Gawande says in his book Being Mortal, preventing falls is the top priority if you want to stop old people from being admitted to hospital. And where do they most often fall? On the stairs, getting out of the bath and getting on or off the loo.

Atul Gawande also writes about the importance of nutrition in old age, the positive benefits of minimal medication, and how vital it is to ensure good care of the feet. All of these help prevent falling. But here in the UK, NHS chiropody is a thing of the past for anyone who is “just” old. I don’t know of any older person who has had useful, regular advice and support about eating well. And many older people are on multiple medications which cause dizziness, which then leads to falling.

And when the almost inevitable happens and the older person “has a fall”, in most parts of this country there is still only one response, which is for two highly trained people to take them in a high-tech ambulance to the place where lives are saved, the hospital. And they will wait in A and E because it’s very busy there and their condition isn’t currently life-threatening. And they will deteriorate rapidly and possibly either get sent home, with an increased risk of readmission, or simply be admitted, in most cases never to go home again. Neither are great outcomes.

(I don’t know what the legal age is when one stops actively falling over and starts “having falls”. But I hope someone is campaigning for this term to be banned. Because it is passive and suggests that bad things just happen to older people. Which they don’t have to.)

In some A and Es, specialists in elderly care are at last being employed. We either need these people to be on duty 24/7 or we need everyone who works in A and E to become a specialist in elderly care because assessing and treating very old people is the majority of their work.

And we need to do all that we can to prevent as many as possible such visits in the first place.

As Benjamin Franklin said, for the want of a nail….

I love spending time with my mother and her friends and the parents of my friends. These people lived through WW2 and their parents through WW1. They have known hardship and loss. When they were growing up, anyone over 60 was old. They remember what things were like before the NHS. They are kind, funny and stoic in the face of much grimness. We owe it to them, and to the ones coming afterwards, including you and me, to reset the NHS dials so that it is possible to live well and to die well. And for everything to be focussed on helping older people to stay at home, or somewhere lovely that feels like home. In the end this will cost much less. And be so much better for everyone.

My elderly lady would probably not have survived another stroke. But how much nicer for her to die in her own bed, with the cat asleep on the end of it, than in a lonely hospital ward.

Now, can someone tell me who is in charge of Out of Hospital Care please? I’d like to help organise a renaming ceremony.

 

 

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If I ruled the world…

In a previous life, I ran a mental health trust for 13 years. It was really hard, but it brought some influence to bear on something that matters very much, i.e. the experiences of 1:4 people, who, like me, are sometimes mentally ill.

In 2010, as Chair of the Mental Health Network, I shared a platform with Health Minister Paul Burstow, Paul Jenkins, then of Rethink, Sarah Brennan of Young Minds and others at the launch of the coalition government’s mental health strategy No Health Without Mental Health. In 2013, I met Norman Lamb (who took over the ministerial role in 2012) and a few other senior colleagues to discuss why it was that the strategy hadn’t completely worked, in our opinion. The shocking evidence of widespread disinvestment in mental health services was by then becoming clearer, rigorously uncovered by investigative journalists Shaun Lintern (HSJ), Andy McNicholl (Community Care) and Michael Buchanan (BBC). Who are heroes in my opinion.

In times of plenty, mental health services have received at least a small share of extra resources available. Professor Louis Appleby’s excellent National Service Framework was delivered from 1999 – 2009 through increased investment in crisis services, early intervention and assertive outreach teams. And it was strictly monitored. Commissioners and/or trusts who thought they knew better than the best evidence of what underpinned compassionate, effective care for people with serious mental illness were found out and given no option but to improve. The architecture that did this monitoring has since been dismantled. We are left with regulation, inspection, adverse incident reporting and stories in the media.

The pressure by local commissioners on providers to swallow the current disinvestment medicine is considerable. Mental health leaders who make a fuss are viewed as lacking loyalty to their local health system. Were the same cuts made to cancer or heart services,  there would be national uproar.

This tells us something, which is that stigma towards the mentally ill is alive and kicking within the NHS.

A true story: the other day, I mentioned the wonderful Alison Millar’s Kids in Crisis  programme to someone senior from NHS England. I could tell they were irritated to be reminded that very sick children are currently languishing in police cells or being shipped hundreds of miles around the country while desperate clinicians spend hours trying to find a bed. This person actually said that parents are prepared to travel all over the world looking for the best treatment for conditions such as cancer. So why should CAMHS be different? When I reminded them that this wasn’t about highly specialist care, just access to care anywhere, they blamed the failure on local services and moved on to share their insights with someone else.

So we have denial about the impact of disinvestment, as well stigma. And I realise that in my new freelance world, I have a different sort of influence.

Thanks to Paul Jenkins, now CE of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, for his blog this week on the paucity of investment in mental health research. Another example of how stigma is flourishing towards those least able to argue for resources. And to Andy McNicholl for his piece on the bed crisis in adult mental health services, mainly caused because people are being hospitalised when other services have closed, or there is nowhere safe for them to go when they are ready for discharge.

Regarding the NHS Five Year Forward View (5YFV) here’s my 6-point plan for making mental health more mainstream. With measurements. Because if you don’t measure, you can’t manage.

1. Suicide prevention

Make suicide prevention the business of every citizen of the UK. Stop blaming mental health trusts and their staff for failing to keep people alive. The responsibility is much broader than that. Locate suicide reduction planning with Health and Wellbeing Boards. Make it their number one priority, with proper support as well as sanctions for lack of progress.

2. Mental health within the NHS

Expect every provider and commissioner to make the care of people who happen to experience mental illness their explicit business. Start with primary care. Require every NHS employee, including reception staff and everyone who works in a commissioning organisation, to do a minimum 1/2 day training, with an annual update, delivered by experts by experience. Report on compliance via the annual NHS staff survey.

3. Integration

Require local systems to produce integrated commissioning plans for all primary and secondary services. Particularly crisis care; dementia; all major physical conditions such as heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes and cancer; neurological conditions such as MS and MND; and musculo-skeketal conditions including chronic pain. Draw on the RAID model for measurement. Allow organisational form to flower according to local need. But also require investment in integrated services through an annual reduction in organisational overheads, and increased investment in the third sector.

4. Public health

Reduce premature death rates in people with serious mental illnesses of up to 25 years by making mental health promotion core business for primary care and secondary health providers in the statutory and non-statutory sectors. Target supportive, evidence based obesity reduction, smoking cessation, substance misuse harm reduction and exercise programmes for people with diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD and personality disorder. Set ambitious targets over the next 25 years and monitor hard against them to help turn around the life chances of some of the most marginalised people in society.

5. Making the business case

It is up to the NHS to articulate and prove the business case for a change of approach in welfare for people with long term conditions such as serious mental illnesses. Commission the best brains eg Professor Martin Knapp at LSE to put the evidence together. Which is that it is considerably more costly as well as more cruel to condemn people who experience mental illness to poor, insecure housing and limited, insecure income, and for them to appear frequently and often pointlessly within criminal justice services.

But these costs do not occur in one place. Creating exciting opportunities for engagement and volunteering such as The Dragon Cafe can help people move from being recipients to full participants. Placing employment specialists within mental health teams and incentivising pathways into work are also proven to be highly successful. The alternative, i.e. penalising those in need of help, is counter-productive. It forces people to have to make themselves appear less able, makes them reticent about coming off benefits for fear of never getting them back should they need them in the future, as well as being extremely detrimental to their long-term well-being.

6. Research and improvement

Shine a light on why so little is spent on mental health research, given the financial and life chance costs of mental illness. Do something serious ang longlasting to reverse this. And then measure the impact longditudinally. No-one says we’re spending too much on cancer research, do they? Use that as our benchmark.

AND listen to the eminent and brilliant Professor Don Berwick, who makes the point that inspection never improved any health system. We need to invest in improvement science, architecture and skills for the whole NHS, of which mental health is an intrinsic, integrated part. Calling something NHS Improvement doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement body, by the way. But it is a good start.

 

I’ve shared these thoughts with the fabulous Paul Farmer, CE of Mind, who is leading one of three national task forces set up to help deliver the NHS England 5YFV. The other two are on cancer and maternity care. I know he wants to do the best he can. But he needs your help.

If you are part of the mental health family, and I would argue that every human being should be, please join in. Let’s seriously increase our ambition for those of us who experience mental illness, and focus hard on a small number of really important things that will really change lives. And then let’s concentrate and not squabble amongst ourselves as we set about achieving them.

That’s how winning teams win, against all the odds.

When I’m 94…(to the tune of When I’m 64 by the Beatles)

When the NHS was created in 1948, 64 was considered elderly. Both my grandfathers died during the 1940s aged 50 from what we now know to have been smoking related illnesses, having served in the WW1 trenches. My maternal grandmother died aged 65. My other grandma managed to last a bit longer; she died in December 1982 aged 79. 3 out of 4 died in their own beds at home.

I was born in 1955, a child of the NHS. I have worked in it since aged 18. The NHS was set up to improve the extremely poor health of the nation after World War 2, with clinics providing advice and free milk, vitamins, orange juice and cod liver oil, as well as weighing and measuring children, hearing and eye tests, free dentistry, and checking for lice, nits, scabies and rickets. A mass free screening and vaccination programme began for common killer diseases such as smallpox, diptheria, tetanus, polio and TB. Going to the clinic with my mother and younger brothers was fascinating and memorable. Providing care free at the point of delivery to people who were sick or injured was a massive bonus for the public, but its wasn’t intended to be the main aim of the new NHS.

Despite these wonderful founding principles, the NHS quickly began to increase its focus on treating sickness. The status of hospital medicine has always been greater than public health or primary care; this continues today. Radical health promotion initiatives such as the Peckham Experiment sadly closed down before they had a chance to prove themselves.

I trained as a health visitor in 1978, having been inspired during my hospital nurse training – in 1975 I went out for the day with the local health visitor. As well as admiring her cream Morris Traveller and adorable spaniel puppy, I will never forget one visit. In a tiny cottage in a village outside Cambridge, we called on an elderly lady. I remembered her in hospital after a massive stroke, lying with her face turned to the wall. Back home, despite needing two sticks and very limited speech, she ushered us into her cosy kitchen, all smiles, and made us tea and biscuits while her cat snoozed on the sunny windowsill.

Community services (those outside hospital that either help people to stay healthy or look after them at home when they are ill or dying) and mental health services have always been the Cinderellas of the NHS. Never more so than in the last few years, when they have experienced unprecedented cuts in order for commissioners to continue to pay for increasingly sophisticated physical hospital interventions.

Today I have a lovely gig: joining 100 or so folk from the NHS and social care system in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, all of whom want to improve care for older people. It is organised by the KSS Academic Health Science Network. Life expectancy in Kent, Surrey and Sussex is the highest in the UK. Were it not for pockets of significant deprivation along the Kent and Sussex coast, and the appalling fact that people with serious mental illness live 20 years less than the population average (25 years less than the KSS average), it would be even higher. It is common for acute hospital wards to be entirely populated by people in their mid 90s and above. The people attending the event know things have to change. Medicalising old age is cruel as well as extremely costly.

It is, fortuitously, Dementia Awareness Week and Dying Matters Awareness Week. I know from the research of my brilliant ex-colleague Professor Sube Banerjee that only 18% of people who have dementia only have dementia. The majority have between 2 and 7 other significant health conditions that seriously affect their lives. The way we run the NHS is simply not serving their needs, despite very elderly people being its majority users. I also know from the wonderful work of organisations such Dying Matters that these days, most people die in hospital despite very much preferring to be cared for at home.

Today, we will be encouraging the people at the event to face this enormous challenge together. We have to do things differently. It says so in the Five Year Forward View. The attendees at this event are to some extent, like those involved in the vanguard sites across the country, the converted. But even they will have to throw away beloved ideas and think the unthinkable.

I am indebted to @HannahTizard on Twitter for this lovely infographic about tall poppies.
image

Tall poppies may experience meanness from others because they are full of ideas and are not afraid to challenge the status quo. They are always thinking about how to do things better and are not prepared to accept mediocrity, especially when it harms others.

I will be using this lovely infographic today to encourage the people at the event, who I think of already as tall poppies, and giving them a link to this blog so they have a reference to keep.

I hope you find it helpful too. Please be a tall poppy; challenge the status quo if you think the care you provide or commission isn’t what you think you would want yourself when you are 94 or even older.  And do something right now to start making things better for every elderly person who wants fewer tubes up their bottom and down their throat, and more time to enjoy their latter days with somebody kind to sit with them, help them to have a drink and hold their hand.

Meanwhile, as I intend to live until at least 94, I’m off to read Sod 70! by the indomitable Dr Muir Gray, to help me continue to treat my body hard but well, and How to Age by Anne Karpf, from the School of Life series, to help me manage my (sometimes fragile) psyche and approach old age with equanimity and joy.

Do please join me.

Post script: 11 hours after posting this, I’ve already had lots of feedback. One person feels I’m generalising and that the research quoted doesn’t support my view that older people would prefer to avoid unnecessary investigations. I agree that we must ask people and really listen carefully to their answer before subjecting them to invasive tests. Over 100 seem to like it so far.

I’ve also realised that I’ve been channelling the #HulloOurAimIs campaign from NHS Change Day led by my lovely Twitter and real life chum Alex Silverstein @AlexYLDiabetes. So I wanted to mention it. Alex is the tallest of poppies and despite being less than half my age, has taught me loads. Go Alex and thank you xxx